12 October 2019
Today is officially the first day of my tour but we start with a group meeting at 6.00pm. So I am privileged to go on a brand new Urban Adventures day tour that has only been operating for one month. I discover Kirtipur, a quaint town that is off the beaten track of tourism and enjoy a traditional Newari lunch with a local host.
I am up early this morning because my body clock hasn’t yet adjusted and was surprised that I needed my jacket for breakfast on the terrace because it was only 14C – but it soon warmed up. I needed to get back to Hotel Marshyangdi for 9.00 but wasn’t sure how long it was going to take given the impending road closures and overwhelming police presence due to the visit to Nepal of Chinese President Xi Jinping. In the end it took just 5 minutes so I spent a lot of time in the hotel lobby people watching.
We climb up the steep winding slopes to the town and then our driver lets us out for the walking tour. Our first sight is the Chilancho Temple which is an ancient Buddhist shrine that is quite different from other stupas we have seen. It has a central stupa surrounded by 4 cardinal stupas and all sorts of interesting prayer wheels and other things that seem to be caged up. Everyone is really friendly and we are saying ‘namaste’ every few steps. At the top we are befriended by some older women who are shy at first and then very keen to be photographed with us (unfortunately the dial on my camera got knocked so the photos are overexposed). There is a monastery alongside but a woman magnificently dressed in a gold sari with sparkly high heels tells us that the monks are meditating.
The narrow alleyways wind around, flanked by multi-storey brick buildings with intricate woodcarvings around windows and doors. The surrounding medieval town has a rather rundown and timeless feel to it. The locals are mostly into agriculture and the brick houses are built on stepped terraces linked by steep paths and we mix with local villagers going about their business: it is still the Dashain festival so people are dressed in their finery giving devotions but also selling vegetables and meat; there is building going on; children are running around; and older people are sitting chatting or soaking up the sun.
We head to Bagh Bhairav Temple which is in the middle of Kirtipur where the two hills meet and has magnificent views of the Kathmandu valley. Bagh Bhairav is considered the guardian deity of Kirtipur and is revered by both Hindus and Buddhists. The magnificent 3 tiered temple is decorated with all the weapons that were taken from the defeated enemies. Apparently the local didn’t need weapons, they just rolled rocks down the hill on top of their enemies.
The higher northern hill is inhabited by Hindus who worship at the Uma Maheshwar Mandir. The approach up stone steps is flanked by a pair of stone elephants (with spiked saddles). We climb the steps to get another stunning view of Kathmandu and of the valley and mountains beyond.
Our final stop is at our local host Sarita’s house where we are to have a traditional Newari ‘special occasion’ lunch. The house is very old, very small and 3 storeys high. We are greeted by her son hanging out the top window. We duck through the low door, remove our shoes and then climb 2 very steep narrow wooden staircases (more like ladders) past the sleeping area and up to the living area at the top. We sit cross-legged on the floor on squabs and our food is served on plates made from leaves stitched together. There are a wide range of vegetables, flaked rice and buffalo meat along with some of their local rice whisky served from a beautiful brass jug. It is only the visitors eating and it is somewhat surreal to have the son watching loud cartoons on a phone whilst we are experiencing traditional fare. Outside the window there is a group of men sitting in the sun and betting on cards.
Then we head back into central Kathmandu. I had planned to try to go to the Narayanhiti Palace Museum but given that all the surrounding roads will be closed for the Chinese President’s visit, and that I didn’t fancy walking back facing the gauntlet of more police than I’ve ever seen before, I opted to be dropped back at the hotel for a rest before our tour group meeting and dinner this evening.
One king (King Tribhuvan Shah) was imprisoned in the palace for four decades from just after he ascended to the throne in 1911 at just five years old. Whilst he was imprisoned the Rana aristocracy ruled the country. In 1950 the King was allowed out to go on a picnic and managed to escape by driving (pre-arranged) into the Indian embassy and was flown out of the country to India. Without the leverage the Ranas were forced to step down under political pressure and the King returned to establish a multi-party democracy. But over the next decades Nepal swung between absolute monarchy, ineffective democracy and civil war. By 2000 it seemed that the Shah monarchy was the only stable institution.
But then in 2001 the Crown Prince gunned down 10 senior members of the royal family in the Narayanhiti Palace, including his parents and his brother and sister, before turning the gun on himself. He had effectively annihilated the Shah dynasty. The late king’s brother Gyanendra – who had previously been crowned as a three-year-old puppet by the Ranas when Tribhuvan fled to India in 1950, and who had been in Pokhara at the time of the massacre – ascended to the throne. Gyanendra was already unpopular before he became king, and more years of unrest followed until in 2008 the Maoists won an election victory, Gyanendra was evicted from the Palace and Nepal became a Federal Democratic Republic. (As I will later learn, democracy has also been a hard fought battle. The Maoist party have currently been in power for 2 years – the most stable the government has ever been!)
At 6.00 we meet our guide Kishor in the hotel lobby and a very depleted group. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit is causing total chaos: not only are roads closed but the airport has been closed as well and flights have not been able to come in. And once they do, they can’t go anywhere.
This is a much awaited visit and it means a lot to the Nepalese people. With so many years of unstable government they have not been able to rebuild as they would like. They also import most of their goods (80% from India and about 15% from China) so their debts are growing. I do hope they are careful though about the terms of any foreign investment.
For this and other similar tours see:
Peregrine Adventures (Comfort tours)
Geckos Adventures (for 18 to 30s)
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