Mt. Huashan China
Guoliang Tunnel China
Namaste (nah-mah-stay) from Kathmandu Nepal.
The big story in this part of the world right now is scarcity… of everything; fuel, food and political will! People here are frustrated, angry, fearful and discouraged. While Americans may complain they can no longer afford to fill their tanks, Nepalese must cope with a government that can't provide enough fuel for the buses they need to go to work and farmers cannot afford the fuel they need to run their hand tractors. Fuel reserves of all kinds are dangerously low; hotels must cooperate with scheduled power outages several times a week. The government is pleading with their neighbor to the south for increased deliveries of fuels, but India is having its own serious fuel problems. Still, those with financial resources are doing just fine. The $15 lavish buffet lunches at the Radisson Hotel which I have been enjoying suggests there is plenty for anyone willing and able to pay the price.
National newspapers report street demonstrations, violent clashes and vandalism somewhere in the country every day; many right here in Kathmandu, the capital. Soaring energy costs and scarcity of fuel are the root causes for most protests. Students closed main traffic street here in front of my hotel demanding special bus fare discounts; independent transportation companies and taxi drivers closed down their operations here repeatedly demanding increases in allowable fare schedules set by the government. Trucking companies block intercity highways to all traffic including the bus I intended to take to Lumbini demanding government action on sky rocketing fuel prices. Political parties stage congressional walkouts when their demands for changes to the new constitution now being finalized are not met. The daily newspapers are full of violent crime reports too, occasionally involving foreign tourists.
Namaste is the most common greeting visitors to Kathmandu hear upon entering what used to be the Kingdom of Nepal… the kingdom is struggling to become the Republic of Nepal as of a couple weeks ago. Along with thousands of Nepalese I witnessed the first raising of the national flag replacing the King's banner at the Royal Palace. The most polite version of the Namaste greeting is delivered with palms together in a gesture of prayer, head slightly bowed. I like it. "Thou art god." is certainly more respectful than "How goes it?" And, it is a lot more hygienic than any form of handshake. Yes, I am still trying to educate the whole world that the social handshake is a filthy anachronism that needs to be replaced by any of the many alternate social greeting customs in use around the world.
Since my first visit to Nepal some thirty years ago the Kathmandu Valley's population has grown five fold. Streets are now so crowded walking anywhere is hazardous. Locals manage to cope somehow as motorcycles; bicycles, rickshaws and cars weave in and out among one another with hardly an inch separation. If you zig when someone expects you to zag, you might well have a near death experience, or worse. Despite all the reckless driving, I actually saw only one real accident: an impatient motorcyclist sideswiped a bicycle when he tried to squeeze past the bike and also avoid oncoming traffic, ripping off the bike's chain guard and setting off a shouting match soon refereed by a passing policeman. The bicycle owner fumed, ranted and screamed at the contrite motorcycle dare devil, but what could anyone do? The policeman looked on helplessly, interjecting terse comments now and then.
Many alleyways are unpaved and form the majority of connections throughout the old historical parts of the city. Any streets that are paved have massive potholes in them. These fill with muddy water during the daily downpours creating an obstacle course for pedestrians. Streets everywhere are narrow, lined with overloaded vendor's tables, parked vehicles and people loitering. While always problematic, I still walk several hours every day. Problematic refers not only to the obstacles along the way, but also to the blister on my right big toe, which refuses to heal completely without extended total rest! Occasionally too painful for even relaxed strolling, it has been a major disruption of my habitual travel activities. Another traveler gave me a special blister-healing patch made by Compeed. The darned thing actually worked for a while and allowed painless walking even before the current blister had fully healed.
With plenty of daylight left when I arrived about 16:00 at the Nepal airport, I felt in no hurry to complete the formalities. Payment of a $30 visa fee produced permission to remain in the country for 60 days… more than enough for my purposes. My normal hike of discovery seemed a prudent option, so off I walked ignoring all the offers of taxi rides to cover the six kilometers. Little did I know how much the area between the airport and the Thamel tourist area near the central part of the city had changed. As dusk closed in and eager elementary school-age boys badgered me to let them "help," "no money, just help," I finally headed for the only hotel who's name I could remember; the Kathmandu Guest House. Rich in historical lore and long famous as a crash pad for budget backpackers, it seemed a safe first night bet and a good place to map out an itinerary. In the four years since I last checked it out nothing much has changed. The grounds are still pleasant enough and the staff tries to be friendly and helpful, but very little maintenance has been done on the inside and the rooms I saw have become seedy. The "deluxe" rooms rent for $60 net, but only the standard $40 rooms could be had with the queen size bed my mature age now enjoys.
All rooms come with their own swarms of vegetarian mosquitoes. While I saw plenty of the flying carnivores, none found me appetizing enough to sample… either that or they just weren't hungry that night. Actually, the repellant tablet heaters might have had something to do with the little buggers loss of appetite. Since that night I have seen plenty of other mosquitoes and have yet to be bitten. Just to be safe I started a daily dose of Doxycycline from the new batch purchased in Bangkok.
Dead tired after that three-hour search for someplace safe to spend a first night, I crashed early and fell into a near catatonic state. The loud Western music and social babble that continued on until at least midnight just beneath my window hardly registered. Early the next morning after a meager breakfast (always included free in the room rates here) off I went looking for more suitable lodging and found the excellent value Hotel Malla. With a rack rate of $150 plus, plus (that's plus 10% service charge plus 13.5% tax) walk-in guests are offered an off-season $60 net rate, however. The Malla is easily a five star establishment, pleasant in every way, although the food is a couple stars short of gourmet. The doorman snaps to attention at the approach of every guest and delivers a smart British salute, stone faced… until I finally couldn't help grinning at his antics. I remained there until leaving for my four-day visit to Lumbini, the birthplace of Siddhārtha Gautama. Naturally I continued scouting for better value accommodations, eventually finding the five star $190++ Kathmandu Shangri-la where the sales manager offered me a $60++ ($74) "off season" rate for my suggested weeklong stay. Back from Lumbini I decided to splurge and made it my home away from home until leaving for Bhutan on 4 July.
Both of the better hotels I used while in the city offered up to sixty television channels. CNN, BBC, DWTV and ALJAZEERA news channels provided a better selection of world news sources than I get at home. ALJAZEERA apparently is only available on two independent cable networks or by satellite reception in the United States and controversy hounds the producers of those two cable networks according to a story that aired on ALJAZEERA during my stay. I relied on ALJAZEERA for most of my news and cannot see any legitimate criticism of its objectivity or broad international vantage. Stories are rarely covered from a white washed American perspective. Some of the subjects, or the critical way they are covered would unlikely make it on any American produced news program. A couple stories I found especially interesting dealt with unflattering aspects of our current administration's international misadventures in the Middle East and Mexico. For anyone who wants a reliable alternative to U.S. administration sanctioned news reporting in the mainstream media, ALJAZEERA is excellent journalism in my humble opinion. I look forward to watching the Internet version at WWW.ALJAZEERA.NET/ENGLISH when I return to California later this year.
This is the monsoon season and it rains every day, usually in the afternoon. One morning at the Hotel Shangri-la I sat down for breakfast under the open sky. Shortly, staff positioned a patio umbrella over my table… apparently as a sunshade, or so I thought. Halfway through the meal under the protection of the big sky shield a light drizzle slowly grew into an exuberant downpour treating me to one of the most unusually enjoyable dining experiences of my life. During this season short bursts of rain are regular occurrences. Roaming black clouds approaching in the distance usually give adequate warning that everything uncovered will soon be wet. Pedestrians pick up the pace of their rambling along the sidewalks with everyone dashing at the last minute for a temporary shelter. Longer periods of light drizzle are not uncommon either, but most people simply ignore them.
An ongoing dispute with city dump landfill neighbors has prevented normal trash collection throughout the city for over a month. Smelly mounds of rotting garbage, smoldering combustibles and non-biodegradables create offensive landmarks in every block. Burning incense is popular in the tourist areas too, and an odd combination of exotic aromas keeps the olfactory sense guessing at what's coming next.
Storekeepers and touts vie for tourist attention, shouting repeatedly when their targets fail to heed their entreaties. Motorized traffic in both directions pound their horns warning others to "watch out!" Street musicians demonstrate beautifully hand crafted wooden flutes and strange little violin-like instruments as they attempt to market their wares. One accomplished flute player hounded me for three blocks before realizing his serenade would not end in a lucrative sale to this tourist. Himalayan music of every description drifts out of numerous shops along most alleyways. A smattering of persistent beggars compete with one another to see who can appear the most pathetic, that despite repeated government requests that tourists refrain from encouraging pan handling by giving handouts to anybody.
The story of my visit to Kathmandu this time actually started in Thailand. On entering the Bangkok airport departure lounge a crowd of noisy travelers hovered around a display of photography props setup to insure all departing visitors would not go home without some spectacular photos of what they were supposed to have seen during their visit to Thailand. Several sets of artificial scenery allowed visitors to put themselves in realistic recreations of traditional Thai situations.
One set offered paintings of a native couple in traditional Thai costumes, with cutouts where faces would be. The creators obviously assumed tall western tourists would be the most likely users of the props, so short Asian women were unable to reach high enough for their faces to show through the holes. Watching as one tiny woman after another stood on tiptoes unsuccessfully trying to reach the face window only to step away in frustration made for some hilarious people watching. A couple resourceful young ladies had friends lift them high enough to get their faces in position for the desired photo effect. Most of the males including myself had no trouble poking our mugs through the cutouts as intended. Another of the props included a fruit laden boat set against a huge painting of a typical Thailand waterfront river scene. The flight from Bangkok to Kathmandu took three hours arriving about 16:00 in Nepal.
The most photographed area in the Kathmandu Valley is Durbar Square in the old historical part of the city. The morning I visited dark clouds threatened to increase the sale of umbrellas. Most of the people wandering the historic assemblage of ancient buildings and religious sculptures were Nepalese. During my two hours of exploration only one other couple appeared to be of foreign origin. It seemed to me that every other person in the area had something to sell and no one wanted to take "no" for an answer. According to promotional literature, Bouddhanath on the eastern outskirts of the city is the world's largest stupa. A busy shopping arcade surrounds the circular structure crowned by a huge golden dome. Shops selling tourist mementoes and "holy men" in their traditional garb create a memorably exotic atmosphere. So hot I finished of a full liter of mineral water before completing even one circuit of the place.
Several people told me of the dramatic decline in the numbers of American tourists since the US State Department added the Maoist government elements to the terrorists list after the 911 attacks in the United States. An employee at the US Consulate here confirmed the predominantly Maoist Nepalese government is still on the list, but that recent diplomatic developments have made it possible for some essential communication to occur. With so few prospective customers, "rich" foreigners like me get a lot of unwanted attention. "Rich" is a relative term, of course. Anyone who can afford to travel internationally and spend as much as $50 for a night's sleep is obviously rich in a country where unskilled laborers might make 100 Rupees per day (less than $2) and even management staff in hotels are grateful for a monthly salary of 10,000 Rupees (about $150!), or so I was told by one hotel informant.
Early enquiries have confirmed China is still refusing to issue travel permits to foreigners for the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Rumors suggest the Chinese policy might change once the Olympics torch passes through the region. I watch the news daily for any anticipated change. My travel plans after the Bhutan trip depend on being able to fly from Kathmandu to Lhasa in Tibet… or a return to Bangkok for a rerouted flight through Hong Kong.
The next postcard will originate in Lumbini near the border with India. That is the birth place of the founder of Buddhism, one of my personal heroes.
Fred L Bellomy
PS: Late breaking news... The Chinese Consulate here affirms there will be no permits or visas issued to foreigners for entry into Tibet at all, so I must go back to Bangkok. tomorrow afternoon I fly over to Pero Bhutan for a four day, three night "highly organized" tour of the kingdom. From there I'll fly on to Bangkok to make connections into China. F