Friday, September 24, 2004

Buff Momo

It won’t have escaped your notice that your travelspondent is reporting hardly at all on India, but purely on Delhi, so have I already turned into such a Delhi-ite, such a Dilli-wallah that I can hardly stand to depart from the place? Answer: no, but practically, it’s hard to work and sightsee outside the urban area at the same time. One reason is that, as you know, I work alternate weekends. I could avoid this, I am sure, but I feel that if you’re made the commitment, within reason, you should follow what your colleagues do. Secondly, in Delhi, there’s a lot to pack in. With the heat and distances and transportation difficulties, it’s tough – try to blitz the city in two or three days, you’ll die trying. Finally, Delhi is a good place to get the train to other cities or other places in northern India, but the distances and times involved are large – there’s almost nothing that lends itself to a day trip.

In 2 weeks time, therefore, I am taking an Express train for a weekend visit to the pink city of Jaipur (5 ½ hours by train). And this weekend, I visited Kathmandu, a flying visit, going there on Saturday arriving after midday and returning Monday midday. Whew…

The Afghan, Bangladeshi and Nepali partners in the project that I am working on generously extended invitations to me to come to Kabul, Dhaka and Kathmandu on my return visit to Delhi. Kabul seemed a good idea until, after 25 years in the country, even through the Talibanic tyranny, Medicins sans Frontieres pulled out for security reasons. Dhaka seemed a possibility, until it was submerged half under water by the recent monsoon floods. So we’re down to Kathmandu, and beforehand, it wasn’t looking that great.

Elsewhere, it’s probably been lost in the mass of international news, but in India, what’s been happening over the border makes the headlines. First, there was the attack by Maoist guerrillas on an upmarket hotel in Kathmandu. And I hadn’t even checked in yet!!! Then, they decided to blockade the capital to starve the government into submission. Then, 12 Nepalis, about as blameless as you could get (well, there is Canadian, I suppose!) but working for the Americans in Iraq, were murdered by an Islamic extremist group, which sparked anti-Islamic riots in Kathmandu. There is now a curfew in the city. If it’s not lifted by the time I go, the weekend is offski!!!

To prepare for the trip, I went to a Wine & Beer Shop in Delhi for the first time. My Kathmandu friends wanted me to bring them some Guinness – and sadly, despite the marvellous array of brews on sale, lip-smacking suds such as ‘Godfather SS High Power’, ‘Power 10000 Super Strong’, ‘Thunder Bolt Super Strong’ and, the best one, ‘Knock Out’ (what’s the brand promise? to render you comatose?), I could find none of the black stuff. Guess it will have to be the local brew, unless that’s been thwarted by the threatened General Strike…

On Saturday I set out for Kathmandu on the morning Indian Airlines flight from Delhi, and both on this day and the following Monday, it was unfortunately raining in Kathmandu, quite heavily on the day I arrived – a really damp afternoon, chucking it down: the end of the monsoon that we had not really experienced in Delhi.

The flight was noteworthy only for the amount of hospitality and food provided for an hour and a half flight – clearly to Indian Airlines the British Airways sad-sandwich-in-a-sack ‘Deli Bag’ (Delhi Bag?) idea was anathema!!! But sitting on the left hand side of the plane as you fly north from Delhi to get the best view of the mountains…great billowing clouds dumping rain just up ahead made it impossible to see much for most of the trip but then, as we neared the city, some of the clouds cleared and we were able to see fabulously towering peaks of mountains hoving into view, their tops and torso streaked with clouds.

Looking down, the view was equally spectacular – patchwork fields and oblong and rectangular blobs of land in the valleys below and on the stepped terraces up the mountainsides, each patch a completely different coloured shade or hue of green, an amazing collection of greens and grassy shades, nurtured by the monsoon. Scattered below were houses and smaller blocks of flats, all only a few storeys high…the houses were predominantly red brick or concrete, or some combination thereof – there seemed to be few indigenous architectural styles surviving in the capital, as far as I could see, but on closer inspection many did not look as if they had been built with craftsmanship in mind!

The city sprawls over the valley floor, its tendrils snaking up into the lower reaches of the foothills and mountainsides. I was met at the airport by the hotel owner, with whom I chatted as we drove to the hotel in the rain in his 4 X 4. He said that tourism was way down because of the bad press. Although there was no general sense of crisis in Nepal or amongst the Nepalis, there was alarm because of the strong-arm tactics of the Maoists in the countryside, and the authorities’ inability to protect their citizens from this. Everyone everywhere had the same lament about the lack of visitors: the tour guides touting for business, the restaurants, my companions there.

We wound through the streets of the capital, by the Royal Palace, and up to the hotel. The streets seemed very much like those in India, with street businesses squatting right by the roadside, shops open to the street, and everywhere people walking by the side of and all over the roads. On closer examination, though, the roads seemed to be in poorer shape. However, they were calmer and less chaotic than Delhi, befitting a city 1/20th the size! My hotel was in the northern part of the city called Lazimpat, the diplomatic quarter, and it was a quiet oasis compared to some of the more touristy parts of town, such as Thamel, except for a dog barking excitedly and constantly and, a nice rural touch, a rooster and one of the loudest dawn choruses I’ve ever heard in a city!

I’d chosen it because of its proximity to one of the jazz clubs in Kathmandu, the Jazz Upstairs. Kathmandu has a thriving little jazz scene and even a jazz festival early in the year. My friend came by to pick me up early in the evening, absolutely soaked to the skin. We then took a taxi through the blur of rain to the Jazz Upstairs, which was not very far away and in a few minutes we were ascending the red painted stairs through the side entrance to the building to the welcoming club upstairs.

It appeared home-decorated, like a Village Vanguard in Kathmandu, with a small bar as you came in on the right, posters of jazz greats all around, tables and chairs in one corner, and to the left a small performance space with cushions and pillows scattered all around. As my friend had had something to eat, I decided to try the momos, which are very popular in Nepal. They’re pasta-like Tibetan dumplings with fillings. I ordered some momos for us to snack on and beer. The momos were served with this spicy dipping sauce and hit the spot.

By that time, the music had started – guitar, bass, tenor, all very creditable, and a superb drummer. All except for the tenor player were Nepali, and were quite good, very tight, playing some jazz and other standards well. The room got reasonably full, and there were 20 or so aging hippies splayed out on the cushions in front of the band.

My friend advised me to try the buff momos and, when I asked him why they were called buff, I explained that buff where I came from either meant (i) polished and well turned out, or (ii) naked!!! He laughed at this…at about this time, one of the newborn hippies decided to get up and take their clothes off. My mate laughed and shouted, “hey, buff momos!” Buff, it turns out, means buffalo…and if you never associated buffalos with Nepal, start doing so now!!! They’re predominantly in the lowlands…buff momos, the local delicacy if you go to Nepal.

My friend said that, for its size and situation, Kathmandu was probably more international than a megalopolis like Delhi, which I think is true, from what I saw of some of the people there, in the club and elsewhere.

We stumbled out of the club about 10:30, which made breakfast in the bright sunlight of the hotel garden the next morning a welcome contrast. And then…well, what I did not realise was that Sunday was a day of work, Saturday a day of rest!!! So I went to meet my friends at their HQ for lunch, then went out in the afternoon to look at some of their contact points in Kathmandu and, in doing so, saw some of the city. One of their offices specialized in child porters, children that work carrying 40 Kg. loads or more!!!

Afterwards, we went to a small momo dive off the central district of Thamel down an alleyway to drink beer and eat plates of momos and other exotica, then off to a restaurant for more beer and food – at 8 storeys one of the highest buildings in Kathmandu, so we went to the top floor and watched the lights winking in the valleys above us, while we were joined by others who came by to hang out with my friends.

So the sightseeing part of this story has been crammed into a small and rainy part of Monday morning. I think that Kathmandu, travelling around it, and using it as a centre for the valley and trekking, deserves at least a week and, during the jazz festival, probably two. For in the centre, in Durbar Square, is the most spectacular collection of temples in the smallest space ever, anywhere. To see some of the pictures, click here.

The Durbar Square complex, which is what it really is, starts at the end of New Road, in Ganga Path, and continues into Basantpur Square, then Durbar Square proper, which then branches off to Makhan Tole, and the entire area is rich with temples, monuments, columns, palaces, and other things of note. You could quite easily spend most of the day there, if you were able to gain admission to every monument, and I had a bare morning.

Picking out a few sights, there is the amazing Kumari-ghar, or Temple of the Living Goddess (yes, ladies, you may think that you have first claim on that title, but the Nepalis bagged it before you!). It was built in 1757 to be the home of the living goddess, or ‘Kumari’, who is considered to be an incarnation of the goddess Taleju. The Kumari appears from time to time in the bay windows on the 3rd storey, in the company of her guardian priestess to she can see and be seen by her admirers!!!

The Maju Deval, or Maju Dega, was built in the late 17th century, and is one of the most impressive of the storeyed or stepped style, with nine steps to give it towering height (and lots of steps for tourists to write postcards on!). The wooden doorway, pillars, windows and struts are all carved. It is probably the most popular meeting place in the city. The temple has erotic carvings on its roof, and offers great views of the Square and City.

Kasthamandap or Maru Sattal (‘house of wood’) was believed to have been built out of the wood of a single tree. It originally gave Kathmandu its name. At first, it was a public space or community centre, then it was converted into a temple dedicated to the god Gorakhnath, and at the four corners is the image of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god.

With all that and more to absorb, I was exhausted after the end of the morning!!! I was also amazed at how everyone was very friendly and, despite being hard-up for tourist sales, there was no hard-sell as in Delhi. After a slow taxi ride back in the horrible traffic, I went to the airport to go through their multiple security checks (some of them pointless – what’s the point of x-raying stuff and searching it as well?) and you have to do things in a specific order (e.g. pay airport tax – then change your Nepali money, which you can’t take out – hoping that they didn’t find on me the Indian currency that I was not meant to have!).

The views as we took off were wonderful – clouded over as we banked over the city, which carpets the valley – because, unlike the arrival, you could this time see the mountainsides arching towards the clouds, a magnificent sight, a great way to end a good, but far too short weekend – with the promise to come back for at least a week in the future (haven’t I promised to go back to every place I’ve been to for a week in the future?), even without the allure of a keg of ‘Knock Out’ to keep me going…


Blogger Big Mama said...

Spectacular..what's a little rain !

September 25, 2004 3:36 AM  
Blogger Crazy_Sister said...

Good Show Can't wait for
next weeks!

September 27, 2004 12:26 AM  

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