KATHMANDU – Rats The Size Of Cats

We spent a restless night due to the unnerving sound of rats scampering around in the mud and straw ceiling and Janette being struck down with a severe bout of diarrhea.  There being no improvement by the following day she popped a couple of tetracycline, which only caused her to throw up.  So she remained groaning in bed while I smoked a pre-breakfast spliff, (despite having awoken with a sore throat) and then went out for a stroll.  It was a chilly morning as I wandered slowly around the Darbar Square area marvelling at the architecture and the faces of the people, all so different from India.  The atmosphere was very laid back and the people were gentle and incredibly friendly, falling over themselves to greet me with a ‘namaste’.  I found a baker’s shop where I bought a loaf of heavy, dark bread and stopped at a fruit and veg stall to buy apples.  On returning to the Hotel Yeti I managed to persuade Janette to eat an apple in the hope that it would settle her stomach and then joined her in bed, as it was the only way to keep warm.

By midday Janette had perked up a bit and we took to the (now sun-warmed) streets, having ourselves a great time just wandering and getting lost amidst the temples, flower-strewn shrines and picturesque houses with their intricately carved wooden doorways and balconies.  Some of the alleyways in the poorer parts of the city were little more than open sewers and on more than one occasion we caught sight of rats the size of cats.  On returning to the hotel we both had a strip-down wash before the air temperature had a chance to drop again, using the galvanised bucket of hot water to remove the dirt, and the icy shower water to rinse.  Glowing and reinvigorated, we strolled up the hill and had a deliciously enormous meal in the nearby Tashi Taj restaurant, where the young Tibetan proprietor and his smiling wife treated us like honoured guests.  That night we slept huddled together, fully clothed against the cold.

On the next morning, the last day of November, we decided to explore the city further, beginning with the archaeological museum – not a great idea.  I have a very short attention span when it comes to perusing old ‘stuff’ in dusty cabinets.  Quickly losing interest, we headed into the Hanuman Dhoka palace complex, which was immediately more inspiring, even if, due to extensive renovation work, a large part of the exterior was covered in an intricate mess of bamboo scaffolding.  Inside, the rooms were unfurnished, which only served to highlight the amazing, elaborately carved wooden windows and panels.   We climbed the rickety, vertigo inducing, wooden stairs, nine stories up, to the top of the pagoda where, through small windows cut into the latticed walls the whole of the Kathmandu Valley was visible.  The sky was the bluest imaginable and to the north-east, the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas added a magical grandeur to the panorama.  Gingerly making our way back to ground level we stopped off at the Tashi Taj for a late breakfast of eggs-fried and chai before ambling along to the Post Office to check for mail.  Here there were a few other western freaks posting letters or queuing at the Poste Restante counter but as there was nothing for us we headed off.  We hadn’t seen that many westerners in the city and I presumed that it was because of the onset of winter.  Most of the freaks we had met on the road had told us that they were heading for the beaches of Goa for Christmas. That was the last place we wanted to find ourselves.  I wanted to be somewhere there were no, or few, other westerners. Goa sounded to me like a kind of freak Benidorm with drugs.  Walking up the Bagh Bazaar we entered the park and then cut back in the direction of Darbar Square.  Stopping off at the vegetable market, we bought fruit and salad vegetables and returned to the hotel to put our feet up before heading out for our evening meal.

The following day, after a good nights sleep, a splash of ice-cold water on the face, followed by a fortifying breakfast, we hired a couple of knackered old bicycles with the intention of spending the day exploring the Kathmandu valley.  We wobbled and weaved through the Dilly Bazaar and eastward out of the city.  There was very little traffic on the road and, even though neither of us had ridden a bicycle for years, it was a fairly easy, five-mile ride to Bodhanath where we stopped to visit the colossal 5th century Buddhist stupa.  Most of the people here appeared to be Tibetans, just some of the thousands of refugees that had fled their country and resettled in Nepal.  Their dress was quite different to the Nepalis.  The men were dressed in wrap-around chubas to their knees,  with a sash, often of bright pink or red, around the waist and, on their feet, what had once been brightly coloured felt boots.  Many wore earrings of turquoise or red coral and had long hair plaited into braids and wrapped around the head.  Surrounding the stupa sat refugees selling trinkets laid out before them as they chatted amongst themselves, hand-spinning wool, knitting or turning battered hand prayer wheels as they chanted quietly and continuously.  In the square was a ramshackle collection of buildings that housed monks in dark red robes, silversmiths who produced prayer wheels, bracelets and good luck charms and boot makers sewing together the traditional felt boots.  Above us brightly coloured prayer flags fluttered in the breeze and the stupa’s four pairs of all-seeing eyes watched over the valley as the devout circumnavigated the base and spun the many prayer wheels, murmuring ‘Om mani padme hum’ over and over.  The whole scene blew me away. It was magical enough to be in Nepal but this was another step further.  Further from what, I wasn’t sure.  But, just as ‘Further’ was the destination on the front of Ken Kesey and the Merry Prankster’s old school bus, Bodhanath felt like one of the places enroute.
 Remounting our bicycles we carried on towards Bhadgaon and the Pashupatinath Temple complex on the banks of the Bagmati River.  We had moved from a Buddhist holy place to, what is considered to be one of the holiest Hindu temples in the world.  It is a place of Hindu pilgrimage and Nepal’s very own Varanasi.  And what a contrast!  Where at Bodhanath we had felt welcomed, here we were most definitely outsiders and felt it.  It was as if we were peeking into something that was none of our business.  At best we were ignored and at worst, eyed with suspicion.  This was a Shiva temple and was heavily populated by sadhus with long matted hair, carrying metal tridents, some naked and covered in grey ash, sitting around small fires.  Red, bloodshot eyes peered at us through clouds of grey-blue ganja smoke emanating from clay chillums.  We nodded and namaste’d our way down to the river where we crossed one of the stone bridges and climbed the steps on the opposite bank to view the scene from the quiet of the forest.  The view from here was amazing.   The complex was massive, with its own burning ghats backed by the dharmsalas where the old and the sick waited to die.  Shining in the sun and standing out from the rusted, corrugated iron and weather-stained stone surrounding it was the two-tiered, gilt-roofed Pashupatinath Temple complete with silver-plated door.  From somewhere in the mish-mash of buildings came the sound of chanting. ‘Jai Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram’, accompanied by the rhythmic tinkle of finger cymbals.  But the idyllic scene didn’t last for long.  Suddenly, we were approached by a very large, pink-faced rhesus macaque with enormous, dangling crimson testicles and an evil, sharp-toothed grin.  For a while he seemed content to pose for photographs but then turned nasty and lashed out at me whilst emitting a terrifying hissing sound from between his bared fangs.  This I was not expecting and immediately went into panic mode, screaming at Janette to, “get out of the fucking way”.  The demented descendent of Hanuman took a confident step closer.  Then I remembered that I had an orange in my bag and, managing to retrieve it in a matter of milliseconds, I threw it at the vicious bastard and took off back towards the river.   Glancing back over my shoulder as we retreated, I saw the creature was no longer advancing but sitting on the wall and looking at us smugly as it meticulously peeled the skin from the orange.

Relieved to be leaving the weirdness of Pashupatinath, we cycled back towards Kathmandu. Turning off the main road on to a bumpy, beaten track with paddy fields on either side we eventually arrived in Patan and pedalled between high houses on narrow, dusty streets into the Darbar Square.  Here, apart from the occasional tangle of overhead power cables, there were few signs that we were in the twentieth century.  The place was awash with temples, ancient palaces and shrines all with exquisite (and often erotic ) Newar carvings covering their teak beams.  By now I was beginning to feel quite unwell.  Periodically throughout the day I had been feeling weak and feverish but thought that it would pass.  Unfortunately I was gradually deteriorating so we headed back to Kathmandu.  Luckily it was only about three miles down a country lane.   We crossed the Bagmati again on the outskirts of the city, returned the bikes and, with sore backsides and aching legs, staggered back to our hotel room where I fell into a feverish sleep.  Later, feeling slightly better, we made it out of the hotel to eat but I soon began to feel really shitty again so we returned to the Yeti where I lay shivering and pouring sweat while Janette rolled the joints and caught up on her diary.

After a night of semi-delirium I awoke feeling pretty good and following a hearty breakfast of sweet, watery porridge, toast and chai in the hotel’s tea room-cum-restaurant we set off through Durbar Square to the fruit and veg market with its aubergines, cauliflowers, red and green chillies and giant radishes.  Here, as I had anticipated, we were approached by a guy who was more than happy to change 200 Indian Rupees for Nepalese Rupees in the back room of a souvenir shop in Freak Street for a far better rate than we would have received at the bank.   The second task of the day, stocking up on our dwindling stash of dope, was just as easily accomplished.  Without me having to say a word and, as if reading my mind, the guy smiled sweetly and asked if we needed hashish.  A half tola of soft, fragrant, black hash was handed over in a small plastic bag with, ‘EDEN HASHISH CENTRE, The Oldest and Most Experienced Nepalese Hash and Ganja, Wholesale and Retail Centre in Kathmandu’, printed on it.  Even though the company had been forced to close some months before (or had it?), the bags were obviously still in circulation.  Freak Street was, at that time, the tourist centre of Kathmandu.  It was lined with chai shops, restaurants, hotels, souvenir shops selling thangkas, silver jewellery and clothing and, of course the pie and cake shops that catered for the many stoned souls possessed by the raving munchies.  It was also the place to do a little trading and here I managed to sell my rucksack and pullover, plus Janette’s water bottle, for 20 Rupees and to buy two warm Tibetan shirts and a brightly coloured Nepalese blouse for the same price.  After another visit to the post office to send off the letters that Janette had written the previous evening, we spaced out in the Ashok, smoking ourselves into Himalayan heaven and, as usual, eating far too much, accompanied by a well travelled, weirdly-wobbly cassette soundtrack of Hendrix and the Stones.

A few yards down the rough track from the Hotel Yeti, just past the ancient underground water tank, was another establishment that hired out bicycles and the next morning we handed over a few rupees and set off back to Bodhanath to buy a pair each of the Tibetan boots we had seen.  Janette had no trouble and found a pair that fitted straight away but I couldn’t find any that I could get my feet into.  Disappointed but not totally discouraged, I suggested that we chilled out over a glass of chai and a spliff at a lean-to tea stall and try again.  This time I was successful and, with our new boots wrapped in brown paper parcels, we cycled out of Bodhanath, turning off the main road on to on a dirt track heading eastward up the valley.  The day was bright and clear with thin, whispy streaks of cloud across a pale blue sky. We had no destination in mind, no itinerary, nowhere to visit, just to ride out into the countryside and see what we would see.  We cycled for miles, winding our way up and down hills, occasionally coming across tiny villages surrounded by fields where people would smile and wave as we passed through.   At the bottom of one particularly steep hill, five gleeful, grubby little boys insisted on pushing the bikes to the top for us.  For their efforts I gave them 10paise each.  In the early afternoon we sat on the side of the track and ate Indian peanut butter on rough local wholemeal bread and were joined by an old gentleman who we shared our cigarettes with and made limited conversation concerning which direction we were travelling.  He was following the track but we had decided that it was time to turn back in order to be in Kathmandu before nightfall. We watched him walk slowly away. He climbed to the top of an incline, stopped, turned, waved and was gone.  Retracing our route, we eventually found ourselves back in Bodhanath where a young Tibetan monk rushed out into the road and flagged us down.  A few feet away was a small boy of four or five years old, sobbing like his heart was broken, snot trail from nostril to mouth.  The monk conveyed to us that the child had fallen over and couldn’t be comforted.  He thought that perhaps if I gave him a ride on my bicycle it might cheer him up.  So I lifted the little chap on to the saddle and pushed him up and down the street, much to the amusement of the locals.  This certainly did the trick and in no time at all he was laughing and shouting at the top of his  voice.  On seeing this, his sister and a couple of friends also wanted the strange foreigner to give them rides, which of course I did.   But as more and more children began to appear we decided that we had better beat a hasty, but polite, retreat for fear of being there for hours and having to cycle back into the city in the dark and probably getting hopelessly lost in the labyrinth of backstreets.  We made it and, with very raw backsides from too many hours on hard saddles, we treated ourselves to banana cake and chai in the Pie Shop on Jochen Tole (or ‘Freak Street’ as it was known) and returned to the Yeti to rest our weary muscles.

Our final day in Kathmandu began with a trip to the post office where there was, unsurprisingly, no mail for us.  This was followed by an hour and a half of queues and mindless bureaucracy just to change a small amount of Indian Rupees, so that we would have enough money to pay the hotel bill.  Why I didn’t do it on the black market I have no idea.  It would have been so much simpler.  The remainder of the day was spent smoking dope, wandering the streets, marvelling at the enormous size of the dead rats, buying rice-paper prints of the Buddha, avoiding the hairy pigs snuffling in piles of rubbish, the rickshaws, the bicycles and the scrawny, bow-legged porters with their massive loads, attempting to absorb everything, whilst periodically stepping out of the hustle and bustle into chai shops to refresh ourselves.  In the evening we ate our final meal at the Tashi Taj.   We dined on large bowls of vegetable thukpa, which turned out to be a delicious soup of seasonal vegetables and noodles.  Needing to be up at dawn the following day to catch the bus down to Birganj, we returned early to the Yeti and, layered in all available clothing against the cold of the December Kathmandu night, we crashed into stoned oblivion.

Awaking the next day to the coldest Kathmandu morning yet, we left the Hotel Yeti at around six o’clock to trudge the mile or so to the post office, where the buses left for Birganj.  Having purchased our tickets, I was in the middle of loading our bags on to the roof of the bus when a guy informed me that it was the wrong bus.  These things happen when you don’t speak the local language.  I unloaded our stuff and just made it to the right bus in time to chuck the bags up on to the roof and climb aboard before it drove off.  Being the last to board we, of course, ended up with the worst seats, at the very back.  This wouldn’t have been so bad except for the fact that the vehicle had little or no suspension and the seats weren’t exactly lavishly cushioned.  Add to this mix a maniac driver who seemed to have a death wish as he careered around blind hairpin bends with a sheer rock face on one side and who-knows-how-many-thousands-of-feet-drop on the other.  The bumpiest ride of my life was only made bearable by the crystal clear view of the distant peaks and the spliffs that I smoked.   Every few miles the driver would ease up on the accelerator in order to stop the bus to allow the radiator to cool down and for his young assistant to climb underneath and, rather worryingly, beat something metal with a hammer.  Janette suffered for most of the day with a bad stomach and took it in turns with the Nepali guy sitting next to her to throw up out of the open window.  As she began to feel better I started to feel unwell myself with a return of the feverishness that I had been suffering intermittently since arriving in Nepal.  I was beginning to seriously wonder whether I had contracted malaria.  By the time we rolled into Birganj at around five o’clock I was drained of all energy, pouring sweat, aching all over and just wanting to lie down.  We completely ignored the multitude of trishaw and rickshaw guys who rushed forward as soon as the bus stopped and when we were ready to go we picked out a guy who wasn’t hustling and headed towards the Indian border.  Not even bothering to hide the dope we passed through passport control and immigration with only perfunctory checks.

 The trishaw-wallah took us to the Tourist Lodge in Raxaul, just across the road from the railway station, where we managed to get a room for 6 Rupees.  At reception we picked up one of their printed cards which announced, ‘Shower, Bath, Cold & Hot Water Available 24Hrs. Fully Furnished Airy Rooms With Fan. Bedrooms with Cotton Mattress, Pillow and Mosquittonets’.  Yes, we were now back in Indian fantasy hotel land.  We had the usual cell with two small beds with mattresses, nothing else, not even a window.  Janette had to ask three times for some hot water which took over an hour to arrive and even then was only half a bucket.  When she asked three times for mosquito nets the disinterested guy at reception said that someone would bring them.  Eventually he brought us an anti-mosquito smoke coil, admitting that they didn’t actually have any mosquito nets. When we lit the bloody thing it filled the room with so much toxic smoke that we decided that we would probably be better off taking our chances with the mossies.  Stupidly, we ordered food but as soon it arrived the electricity went off and we were plunged into total darkness.  By the time Janette had found a candle the food was cold and a rat was running around the room which caused a bit of hysteria in both of us.  The food was followed by chai a half an hour later, after which we smoked a spliff and put the day behind us, hoping that the following day we would escape fucking Raxaul.

2 Responses

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  1. Sushant said, on November 30, 2010 at 11:00 am

    Hey, Seems like you and Janette had a ball in Nepal, Kathmandu especially. Reading your blog is like going back a little in time(that is was not my time). It’s sad to say that that Kathmandu has lost a major part of its gravity these days. No more that mystical(or maybe it’s just me). The Himalayas are still there though. Bright and Shining.

  2. Richard McCarthy said, on July 29, 2015 at 1:45 pm

    I have forgotten the name of the four storey hotel I stayed in but I DO remember that it was close to the famous “porridge” shop and only a few minutes from the cheese shop. Without those two staple foods I would have diarrhoea-ed away to a skeletal little chap.

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