I am not looking forward to today as I dislike cities, and the sights of Kathmandu are on the agenda, but the time goes by surprisingly quickly. Our Nepali guide, who tells and re-tells everything in different words, supplies us with information in a continuous monotone, barely discernible above the clamorous melee of honking car horns, bicycle and rickshaw bells, snorting motorbike exhausts, tonking temple bells, and of course the ubiquitous crying of hawkers.
Children line the streets, sitting on soiled cloths beside smelly gutters waiting for sweets, for it is the festival of the racing horses. There are two months’ worth of holidays in a year in Nepal.
Shops come in clusters. First, camping and climbing gear shops, interspersed with internet cafes at the astonishing price of R1 per minute (R100 = approx. £1). Then carpet shops, wool stores and an occasional corner temple. Grain shops display lentils and cooked rice flakes, with fresh spices. We come to a street colourful with vegetables: succulent carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, onions, potatoes, egg-plant, chillies, sweet corn. There is a gleaming corner of brass and copper ware, intriguing carvings of gods and goddesses, bulls, horses, bangles, silk purses, necklaces and knick-knacks.
Our attention is drawn to yet another temple and the buildings beside it. The red brick walls are not bonded with cement, so they only last for fifty years before the building has to be pulled down and rebuilt. But the ornately carved windows and doors are preserved – the joints easily discernible – and installed in the new building, causing quaint waves and uneven cracks where the new brickwork does not quite fit the old wood. Some of the woodwork dates back to the 16th century. One or two houses literally lean over a bit, due to the occasional earth tremor.
As we progress towards the centre of the city, the temples became larger. The cooing of doves adds to the clamour, their white droppings falling everywhere, and we are continually warned not to stand below any eaves. People wearing blood reds and orange, children in rags play, men and women make the rounds of the temples, touching the red-stained icons in the niches, then their foreheads, and running their hands along prayer wheels.
Bloody feathers are ground into the road, half-chopped and skinned carcasses of goats and chickens are displayed on slabs above the filthy gutters. Motor bikes go in all directions; policemen with whistles try to direct the traffic, but nobody takes any notice. Everybody is in a jaunty holiday mood.
We come to Durbar square, and the crowds have vanished in this World Heritage site. Our guide collects tickets and distributes pamphlets. For the first time I notice other tourists and there are few hawkers. A soldier outside the old palace kitted out in full Gorka uniform allows photos to be taken. No people throng around the large temples, only pigeons, hundreds of them, pecking at seed then rising in noisy flapping flocks when disturbed. It is eerie, somehow.
We enter the temple of the living goddess and ask to see her, while Udaya places an offering for us. She is a pouty four year-old, decked out in a fancy red sari, who appears briefly at a window above our heads. Only recently selected for this significant solitary role, she is destined to perform for eight whole years in these unnatural surroundings, until she reaches puberty; but the offerings go to her family, who are freely allowed to visit her.
We lunch in a rooftop restaurant which takes nearly an hour to produce our tomato soup, so we have to rush out to catch a taxi to manoeuvre us back to the Hotel Malla, twenty minutes late for our next appointment.
Our party is succumbing like ninepins to stomach cramps, nausea and diarrhoea. One stays in bed. We use our bus this time, past the army parade ground where multitudes of people crane over each other to catch a glimpse of the King when he arrives for the horse racing festival. The traffic crawls at a snail’s pace, then pick up again past the entrance as we glimpse plumed white horses and carriages attended by a troop of cavalry.
The holiest Hindu shrine in Nepal – Pashupatinath – is a shock. We run the gauntlet of wares sold in aid of the lepers before emerging on the far bank of a wide riverbed. The temple roof is barely visible across the river above a murky wall, along which a troop of monkeys play. I notice two funeral pyres, and raise my binoculars. They are cremating some bodies. An orange-covered form lies, waiting on the ground as another is carried reverently down to the water’s edge to dip its feet into the sacred river, before being committed to a slab of concrete. They cover it with grass and set it alight. Thick smoke rises from the pyres as solemn men and women looked on, mourning silently. An arm sticks out, swollen and black, from the smouldering grass.
This is too much for us, and our guide has to cut short his spiel.
The next stop, Bakhtapur, is a blessed contrast. Bodnath, the largest stupa in Nepal, lies a few yards from a busy street. Its enormous stone dome is topped by Budda’s all-seeing eyes gazing to the four corners of the world, and the thirteen steps to Nirvana tower. Tibetan monks in red robes mingle with the reverent crowd striding round and round the base, always keeping the stupa on their right. The faithful pass beads through their fingers as they murmur their prayers and spin the prayer wheels.There is a peaceful aura about the place.
Shops line the circular way, but there are no pushy vendors here. Several internet cafes are evident, and I read messages from my family for all of 12p, then emerge to start a tramp round the stupa. I climb the steps to the topmost circle below the eyes of Budda, pausing to have my forehead daubed with vermilion dye, and complete the regulatory three circles, looking down at the faithful prostrating themselves in continuous press-up-like postures in a walled courtyard. Monks sit chanting prayers and chatting quietly, every face a picture of peaceful serenity.
I give myself an early night, in preparation for the highlight of our tour the following morning.