Wednesday, November 20:
Random walk redux;
A tour of southern Kathmandu;
A Tibetan shopping spree

When I awoke around 8am, Susanne was already getting out of bed, much to my surprise. Apparently her fever had broken and she hadn't gotten sick in the night. This was quite a relief. We ate breakfast - my usual porridge and sundries while Susanne braved a pancake as her first real meal in days. I told her about the interesting walk I had taken the day before, so we decided to go back so she could see some of the sights as well. The markets south of Thamel were crowded as always, though this time I noticed more spice dealers setting up impromptu shops on the street corners. Since it was still early in the morning, the sun had yet to rise to a point that would make picture taking desirable, so we left our cameras alone for a bit and enjoyed sights and smells of Asan Tole.

We continued to the Sweta Machhendranath temple, the Hindu/Buddhist shrine that had entranced me so much the day before. Today, instead of finding old men chanting through puja ceremonies, we saw a group of seven or eight kids who were horsing around on the smaller statues and chaityas. Significantly more merchants were there as well, mostly selling flowers, rice and other offerings. The swarm of pigeons was still hovering over the same spot, as they were fed diligently by the same man from the day before who threw pints of rice and corn into the air. The iron cage that surrounded the main temple was quite deserted, so we decided to go inside for ourselves to take a look around. Why this metal fence enshrouded the shrine, I'm not sure, but as we walked around, the intricate molding of the iron caused hundreds of detailed shadows to play tricks off of the temple's walls. A small statue of Machhendranath stood at the front and center of the temple. It looked like a four-armed Buddha. Prayer wheels were mounted in the inner frame of the iron cage, so we spun the wheels as we walked clockwise around the temple.

At the end of the circuit was a blind monk holding a large brass bowl. I politely placed a five rupee coin inside of it. On my next circuit around the temple, though, a Newari woman who was walking ahead of me approached the monk, reached into the bowl, and pulled out a handful of rice, which she promptly tossed into the charcoal fires that burnt next to the Machhendranath statue. The monk wasn't a beggar after all - I felt so dumb. In a funny sort of way, I consoled in the fact that the monk was blind, so at least he wouldn't be able to see who this naive American tourist was.

We continued south to Durbar Square. A small family of rhesus monkeys was hanging out on a wooden shrine just next to Nasal Chowk, the old palace square. The papa monkey, big, fat and slow, roamed where he pleased, stirring through trash bins and scaring the hell out of the local pigeons. Two mama monkeys watched after their rambunctious youngsters, who squeaked a lot and hung off of anything on which they could get a good grip. One of the mama monkeys had a lame hand, and was in a pretty bad mood. Two Nepalese schoolkids kept taunting it by rushing back and forth in its direction. The monkey would show its teeth and even charge at them. Personally, I rooted for the monkey.

After taking a quick peak into the Kumari's courtyard to see if the living goddess was around (she wasn't), we crossed east into Basantapur Square to the large souvenir flea market. I started to look at some Tibetan prayer books - handwritten rice paper manuscripts loosely bound by two blocks of carved wood. I found one remarkable specimen that contained ten separate rice paper panels, about 5"x16" each. I asked the merchant how much it would cost. He said "$140 dollars - very old." "140 bucks! Outrageous!" I retorted, and started to walk away. He then grabbed me by the shoulder and began what was to be a long, drawn out haggle. After 15 minutes of serious fun, I purchased the prayer book for $30. Who knows what it was really worth, but to me, it certainly deserved 30 dollars just as a cool keepsake. It's a remarkable piece of art and I'm really glad I got it, though I have yet to figure out how on earth I'll get it framed.

Susanne wanted to briefly check out Freak Street. We were just north of it, so we took a quick walk. I, thanks to my habitual morning pot of hot tea, needed to find a restroom, so we stopped at the Oasis Cafe to take advantage of their facilities and, of course, get another pot of tea. In retrospect, it would have been faster for me to have just run into the closest guest house, acting as if I were a guest there, and then gone to their bathroom, since every cheap guest house has at least one shared restroom on each floor. But hey, this was a chance for more tea, and I was not one to turn down such a chance. Even though tea would just lead to more bathroom stops. Ah, who cares - I shouldn't dwell on such endless cycles. That's what god invented Buddhist monks and koans, I guess.

We finished our mint tea and Sprite and cut through Basantapur to the southwest corner of Durbar Square. Here we found the enormous wooden pagoda, the Kasthamandap Temple. Kasthamandap is one of the oldest pagodas in Kathmandu - so old, in fact, that the city derived its very name from it. Susanne and I spent a few minutes admiring the pagoda, and then decided to begin a walking tour of the southern side of Kathmandu. Before we got started, though, a tall blonde man approached us and asked somewhat sheepishly, "Are you as lost as I am?" I showed him where we were on his map. He was Canadian and was just passing through Nepal after a six-month gig in Australia. We asked him what he did for a living and he said he was "a vet," at which point I had a vision of this lanky Edmontonian diving for cover in the Australian bush. Of course, he was really an animal doc, but the image was pretty funny. Anyway, he had literally just arrived in Nepal that morning and had seen nothing in Kathmandu, so we sent him packing northeast to the rest of Durbar Square. Meanwhile, Sus and I headed south and walked a long circle that took about 90 minutes to complete.

The communities south of Durbar Square were typical Kathmandu - courtyards of Newari neighbors that appeared quite poor, yet teemed with life and activity. There were a few small temples and stupas along the way, but all in all, this was a residential walk. Eventually, we completed the circuit and found ourselves back at Kasthamandap. I was about to make a comment about our Canadian friend being lost in the alleyways north of Durbar, but I looked ahead of me and saw him, standing exactly where we had first found him. I asked what had happened, and he said had spent the time around Durbar and was now trying to figure out how to head west to the stupa at Swayumbunath. Once again, we pointed him in the right direction and sent him on his merry way. We haven't seen him since.

We walked back through Jyatha and into Thamel, having lunch at our hotel. Being the healthy one, I wanted to venture off elsewhere for lunch, but Susanne, being the recovering one, called the shots and insisted we stuck with what we knew would be safe. After eating, we decided to go shopping. First, we'd need to cash some traveler's checks, but before we could do that, one of the boys from the hotel came up to us and said he needed our passports. The hotel had sent him to reconfirm our flights, but apparently the airline office needed to see our passports with our tickets. He headed off to finish the job, passports in hand, but this left us waiting in the lobby for some time, writing postcards and working on our journals. I also read some entertaining anti-Chinese propaganda published by some pro-Tibetan movement. 30 minutes later, the boy returned with our passports and tickets. We tipped him and got ready to shop.

While I normally don't consider myself an avid shopper, it's hard to resist the hundreds of stalls and stores around Thamel - an endless Filene's Basement of cheap wool, rugs, art, and random souvenirs. Thamel is a crossroads of so many cultures that you can buy practically anything here, from Tibetan thangkas to Swiss army knives, all at great prices. First we visited a Kashmiri shop to find a shawl for Susanne. Because of the recent violence at home, many Kashmiris have moved their businesses to Nepal and now appear to be doing quite well. Susanne found her shawl while I fell in love with a large papier mache place that had been hand painted with an incredible Mughal-era seen of a royal hunting expedition. At $50 dollars, it was a treasured find. I just hope I can find a way of getting it home in one piece.

Next stop: clothes. I had wanted to get a light Nepalese windbreaker or perhaps a good wool sweater. There were many items to choose from at every shop. At one store we found several cheap jackets, all ranging from about $5 to $25. The more expensive ones were really amazing, but after feeling the fabric I began to question their durability. I then found a heavier, multicoloured jacket from the kingdom of Bhutan. It almost looked Andean in its many patterns and colors. I asked the store owner how much he wanted for it. He said $40. Once again, I began haggling with the man, and eventually was able to buy the jacket, along with an incredible green and white vest, for about $20. Another shopping success.

Susanne still needed some gifts for her family, so we found a small sweater shop in the heart of Thamel. Susanne saw a nice cardigan for her mom, cheap at around $14. I of course wanted to haggle, but the owner of the shop had a horribly cleft lip, and I could tell Susanne felt bat about negotiating with this poor man over a couple of measly bucks. She bought it for $13. My last purchase of the evening was a Tibetan prayer wheel. I found a style I liked at an open-air stall. The seller quoted a price of $30. All the stalls next to him had the same style of prayer wheel, so I went down the row, quoting the previous seller's price just to see how low I could haggle. I was doing well until I got the price to about eight bucks. It would go no further, so I bought it and proudly claimed victory (even though it probably cost less than 50 cents to make).

After dinner, we hung out at the hotel, admiring our purchases and trying to figure out how we'd be able to pack it all. Then it was off to bed. Tomorrow morning, we're being picked up by a taxi at 4am to take us to the remote hill town of Nargakot, an hour east of Kathmandu. It supposedly had the best morning views of the Himalayas in the valley. But 4am? Ugh...

Next Entry: Himalayan sunrise at Nargakot

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