I was given a private day tour of Kathmandu today with a driver and a guide. I normally frown upon such arrangement but as soon as we got out of the door I realized there is no other way to sightsee here. The road condition is terrible. Very few of them are actually paved. The bumpy ride is met with an overflow of motorcycles everywhere. Then, throw in a variety of other vehicles, pedestrians, and no traffic lights or rules, you've got an impossible commute.
The poor traffic condition makes am even poorer air quality. Many people walk around with a face mask. The dust and smog is visible from Swayambhunath, our first stop in the morning. Swayambhunath Temple sits on top of a hill west of Kathmandu and is home to tons of holy monkeys, hence the site is also known as the monkey temple. The sky looked amazingly blue above the white stupa.
Next, we stopped at Kathmandu Durbar Square, where the royal family once resided. There are a collection of different temple designated to individual Hindu deities. We also visited the House of Kumari. Later I read that baby girls are selected to live there and worshipped as the human incarnation of goddess Taleju until they reach puberty. This reminded me of the vestal virgins in the Roman tradition. Here, only born Hindus are allowed to enter into the house to worship the kumari, hence the sign for no entry for foreigners in both English and Chinese!
The guide informed me that the Chinese make up the largest portion of tourists here. For some reason that really surprised me. I asked if they do any hiking here, since native Chinese are not the most physically active people. The guide said no, very few people hike here and the ECB is a tough trek. Just about all of the Chinese tourists come here to visit culture sites and take pictures with their fancy cameras. Now I feel less Chinese with my camera phone. For $2500+/hour people can take a helicopter ride to the base camp to see Mt. Everest. I guess I better stick to the cheaper way of walking there.
On our way to Boudhanath Stupa, I asked how much is lunch going to cost me. The guide said around ten dollars. Wow, that's really expensive, I responded. I recall people mentioning stay in Nepal on $10/day including room and board. Besides, $10 for lunch sounds expensive anywhere. But it made more sense once we arrived at the restaurant with a beautiful balcony overlooking Boudhanath Stupa. A cat came to visit me during lunch. Before i left in the morning someone said I'll see lots of monk activities today due to the festivity. But monk activity is kind of an oxymoron since all the do is sit. I felt strange eating while watching and listening to monks pray for world peace below me. I likely would have avoid such touristy spot myself.
After lunch, the guide asked if I would like to see the crematory. Now, that's a question you don't hear everyday. I looked perplexed and said, sure, why not, if it's a part of the tour. The guide explain some people prefer not to see dead bodies burn. For some reason I envisioned the crematory as a nice building to look at from the outside, not as literally burning dead bodies outside on top of a pile of wood as seen in movies about India! Lucky for me there were three bodies burning away as we walked up the Bagmati River. The smoke was overwhelming. According to Hindu tradition, bodies must be burned within 24 hours of death. The process takes four hours and the family members wait around until the end to release the ashes into the river.
The Pasupatinath Temple is just up the river from the burning bodies, above the spot reserved for members of the royal family. This Hindu shrine is dedicated to Shiva. The singing and dancing created a stark contrast to the mourners less that 20 meters away.