A few days after a precarious exit from India, my dad met us in Kathmandu: he had been looking for a chance to catch up with us somewhere along our journey, and something about Nepal piqued his interest. A few weeks earlier, he pulled the trigger on a flight, spent some time researching the mountain kingdom, and joined us. Looking no worse for the considerable wear of 40 hours of travel, he arrived midday on a Monday and we spent the next day and a half seeing the historical and religious sights around the Kathmandu valley before heading into the Himalayan foothills for a short trek.
The Kathmandu valley has been inhabited for many thousands of years, but has been connected to the outside world by roads for only around 50, and by air for just a bit longer than that. It has historically been an important stopping point on the trade route between northern India and Tibet, and has been held sacred by Buddhists for centuries, its circular shape being referred to as an enormous mandala, befitting of its place as a location of immense spiritual significance.
Our first stop was Swayambhu stupa, only a few kilometers' uphill walk from our hotel, but one of the oldest and most revered sites in the valley. Legend has it that the entire valley was once submerged in a huge, snake-infested lake, but 91 aeons ago, a lotus flower, one of the most potent symbols in Buddhism, appeared miraculously on the surface of the lake in the very location of the hill Swayambhu sits atop, leading the the eventual draining and habitation of the valley. The flower is said to have been self-created (the literal translation of the word Swayambhu), and thus extremely holy, so the hill and the stupas and temples on top of it have been worshipped for thousands of years. The current dome probably dates to the fifth century.
After a tasty Tibetan meal and some much-needed rest for all of us, we hired a car the next day to see some of the more far-flung attractions in the valley.
The first stop of the day was Changu Narayan, a Hindu temple also dating from around the fifth century, but the current buildings having been reconstructed around 1700. The site contained many small shrines and stone carvings to various dieties, and some very ornate wooden roof supports. One interesting fact is that there is a stone image of the Hindu god Vishnu residing inside the temple. It is said to sweat from time to time, indicating that the represented God is battling with foes in the spirit world, and the cloth used to wipe his brow is held as a sacred relic and is reputed to guard against snake bites.
Although my dad was quite impressed with the simple temple, Claudia and I might have had a wee bit of a temple hangover from India, so we hurried along to our second destination, the ancient city of Bhaktapur.
This proved to be our favorite site of the day, the Nepali capital from around 1200-1500, and still remarkably well preserved. We spent a few pleasant hours strolling the ancient city's narrow streets and visiting numerous temples, shrines, and public squares. We even tried the city's signature yogurt snack, known locally as the king of curds. Maybe not as impressive as a snakebite-preventing rag, but this city's claim to fame is as the site where the early Keanu Reeves classic, Little Buddha was filmed in 1995.
Next up was Pashupatinath, another Hindu sacred site. Here, on the shores of the Bagmati river, the devout congregate to cremate their dead since this river--albeit little more than a polluted trickle when we saw it--flows into the Ganges in Varanasi, India. We had dogeared another nearby site, Gorakhnath, for a potential visit because of its prominent place in a story we had been following since our arrival in India. The story goes that Shiva married a woman named Sati who, offended by an insult and in a fit of rage, jumped into a fire to her death. Shiva, stricken with grief, retrieved her corpse and flew all over the subcontinent, scattering her remains. The sites where each of the 51 pieces fell are held as sacred among Shiva-worshippers, and while we had visited one or two towns in India famous for being the spot where a toe or shoulder fell, none of them could compete in our minds with nearby Gorkhnath, the holy site where her vagina landed!
We rounded out the day with our second Buddhist stupa of the valley in Boudhanath, this one one of the world's largest and the most spiritually important monument in Tibetan Buddhism outside Tibet. We took a contemplative stroll around the stupa's perimeter before calling it a day.
A few days later, after celebrating the Holi festival, and our trek in the Annapurna (you'll have to wait for the next posts for those stories), we returned to Kathmandu to see my dad off, do some last-minute planning for the next leg of our journey, and pack in some more sightseeing, this time in small and historical Patan. Another ancient capital, this one dates back to the 18th century and boasts another jaw-dropping collection of royal palaces, temples, statues, and artisan markets just steps from our quaint but rough-around-the-edges guest house.
Kathmandu is a thoroughly modern city, yet the surrounding valley is simply brimming with centuries of history and culture. The collection of sites we visited felt like something of an echo of our time in India; the ornate Hindu temples, the solemn Buddhist stupas, and the opulent palaces all combined to make a succinct summary of our time on the subcontinent.