Saturday, November 3, 2007

night shakes

6th July 1993
My first visit to Kathmandu. From my travel diary:

"The beginnning of my third day in Kathmandu. It's difficult to know where to begin. The absorbtion and assimilation of sights, smells and sounds is still going on and will probably continue until well after I leave.

Sitting on the verandah of the Dalaghiri Guest House in Thamel, a district of Kathmandu, I am high enough to see over the hills surrounding Kathmandu Valley; heavy dark clouds hang low over my head oppressively like being in a long low - ceilinged room. A trail of clouds loiters even lower in the distance around the hills near the horizon.

The Monkey Temple from my hotel

A sudden break in the clouds and the full force of the suns heat beats the back of my head. The air is still but far from quiet. Kathmandu is rarely quiet. Noise travels easily in the humid air, and in the distance I can hear flute music, the eternal barking of dogs, the toot-toot of rickshaw horns, the sounds of reed brushes flicking dust and dirt from the footpaths plus a variety of building construction sounds which insinuate from every direction.

Scaffolding - from my hotel window

Big dark crows are forever hovering, occasionally swooping low by the verandah. Often they hang seemingly motionless in the air in the way hawks and eagles do. "Caw Caw' they screech. All the while as I write flies settle and rise on and around me - I can almost begin to ignore them."

Back then in 1993 Nepal was quite an eye opener for me. Knowing very little about the place, I decided on the spur of the moment to add a side trip on the way back from Norway where I had been exhibiting my first solo show overseas.

Arriving at the airport I discovered that the previous week Maoist led demonstrations had resulted in the deaths of 20 people. There were more demonstrations occuring on the same day I arrived. My airport bus was escorted by a truck full of heavily armed soldiers which had the effect of drawing absolutely everybody's attention to us!

When we arrived in the city centre the bus pulled into an area which was fenced off and large metal gates swung closed behind us and were quickly padlocked. The unease and rising tension was exacerbated by one of the tourists on the bus hysterically bursting into tears.

Of course the fear of such situations is dramatically out of proportion to the reality, and the demonstrators were clearly not out to claim a few shabby backpackers scalps, so soon after I was wandering around the smelly, open sewered streets of downtown Kathmandu looking for a hotel.

Durbar Square, Kathmandu

Kathmandu street scene

Despite the smells and the squalor, I loved Kathmadhu. It was a lively, colourful squirming organism seemingly out of step with the 20th Century, and was one of the few places I had been up until that point where I felt the city was in fact timelessly unchanged. If I could have transported myself back 300 years it would have changed little - except for the disappearance of the motorised vehicles and electric lights.

Temple doorway

One day I walked to the 'Monkey Temple' (Swayambunath Stupa) named for the many columbus monkeys found there. The temple is a mass of shrines, or 'stupas' of varying sizes and you can read more about it here

Me at Swayambunath - The Monkey Temple

Swayambunath locals

On the way back to my hotel I took a circuitous path through some fields and villages, at one stage stumbling across 5 or 6 life-sized straw figures hanging by their necks from tree limbs, a somewhat chilling sight which I still have no explanation for.

A little later, while shopping for some trinkets in a local store, a cow wandered in. It then shit on the floor, looked around as if to say "...because I CAN" and then wandered out again.

2 days later at about 3am I was thrown out of my bed (literally) by an earthquake - 3 main shocks (just 4.5 on the Richter scale) which caused several buildings in town to collapse resulting in minimal loss of life.

I also rented a bicycle and cycled to Pashupartinath, Nepal's oldest and holiest Hindu pilgrimage site where I was able to witness the burning of the dead. One corpse erupted in a fountain of body fluids amongst the flames much to my astonishment.

Pashupartinath (पशुपतिनाथ मन्दिर)
(You may recognise this from my blog header)

Pashupartinath (पशुपतिनाथ मन्दिर)

Cremation at Pashupartinath

To close, my last evening in Kathmandu from my diary:

"I am sitting on the balcony of my guesthouse. Next door a Nepalese Buddhist or Hindu band has been playing and/or chanting for a couple of hours, across the road in a slum building a newborn baby cries, and in the distance the eternal barking of dogs. Once again it is a beautiful and clear night and I feel extremely happy."

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