Saturday 10 - Tuesday 13 October2009 Bandipur & Gorkha to Kathmandu
Bandipur was a lovely spot - a real piece of history. Growing in the 1700s mainly due to its location on the trade route between lndia and Tibet it is a living example of Newari (a tribal people of Nepal) architecture beautifully set on the ridge of a hill with valley views stretching into the distance.
It was a bit of a steep climb up there and when we arrived it was initially a bit tricky finding a place to park. Much of the town was closed to vehicles and the roads were small and windy. I'd read about the central Tundikhel some sort of medieval trading ground which once hosted fairs and archery contests. Thinking it sounded nice and flat (thus with plenty of camping potential!) we drove up there. Whilst we couldn't drive onto the field as it was up steps (and there were about 10 soccer games going on!) we found a spot to pull up just to the side which was fine.
We walked up onto the Tundikhel which had stunning views down over the Himalayas. There were several huge fig trees - apparently these represent different Hindu gods in Nepalese mythology. Right next door there was a little restaurant and they stayed open - just for us it seemed! - and gave us a delicious traditional meal of daal bhaat and chicken curry. It is obviously not a late night party town as despite the fact it was Saturday night we seemed to be the only ones up after 8pm! It was a bit breezy up on the hill anyway so we had a fairly early night.
Next day we went for a wander around town. It really was incredibly scenic and as it is so beautiful with huge tourist potential there have been various grants given to develop this but thankfully so far anyway it had been really well handled and the development has been in keeping with the local ambience (no high rise of revolving discos!!)
We spent a pleasant morning just strolling the streets looking at the Newari houses and temples. The people here are very friendly and many speak good English possibly due to the presence of the Notre Dame school here. Initially set up in 1985 by Catholic nuns from Japan this school both provides education for rural kids and pioneers various social projects in the area. Apparently the school was closed by the Maoists in 2001 -the area is historically a bit of a Maoist stronghold - but it is now re-opened. The Maoist graffiti - showing the undercurrent of support -remains but there has been no trouble in 6 years or so.
We drove on through scenic hill scenery towards Gorkha our next destination. We are as ever a bit of a focus of attention and this was demonstrated on the way when we pulled over for a picnic near some road works.
The ladies looking so elegant walking with brushes carefully balanced on their heads were scrubbing the road by hand prior to the tar being laid down. As we pulled down our table and unpacked our little picnic (bread, yak cheese tomatoes cucumber) we soon had quite a crowd watching our every move! It's invariably friendly attention but it does take a bit of getting used to having your every chew monitored. We know just how the Jolie-Pitts must feel!!
Gorkha is famous as the birthplace of Prithvi Narayan Shah - the king who founded and established Nepal as a separate country. He was a great warrior and his private army the Gorkhas went on to become the UK Gurkha regiment. This army so impressed the British when they fought against them that they struck a deal not to try and conquer Nepal any more if they could use these soldiers themselves. In 1815 the first Gurkha (as I've said before no one seems to know why the English changed the name from the original Gorkha) regiment was formed and the Gurkhas have fought bravely for the British all around the world ever since.
The area is a major pilgrimage site for Newaris who regard the Shah Kings as living incarnations of the god Vishnu. Perhaps for this reason (the Shahs are seen as imperialists) it is also a focus of Maoist attacks and there was a heavy army presence throughout the town especially at the palace.
We found a parking spot in the grounds of the Hotel Gorkha Bisauni and we were certainly very safe as we had our own private security in the form of a uniformed Gurkha. Now retired from the army he worked as security officer for the hotel. He took his duties very seriously and would appear and click his heels and salute us at the most unexpected moments! He was armed to the teeth with his polished khukuri or traditional knife so we felt we could rest easy with him in charge!
Gorkha itself whilst set in gorgeous hilly scenery is a fairly dusty town and the main attraction is the temples and the Gorkha Durbar or Palace. Dating from the early 15th century this is a stunning example of Newari architecture which is characterized by tightly jointed stonework and elaborate wooden carving. The roof struts are all covered in intricate carvings many of which are a bit risqué!
In the town centre there was an attractive little market square with a few temples around. Next to one we saw lots of brightly coloured spaghetti looking stuff drying out. We'd seen this in Tansen and assume it is something Newari to do with one of the festivals. It is apparently edible and I asked the name but at the time of typing I can't find where I wrote it. Slack! Anyway we drove up a steep track past villages up to the top of the hill and the palace. You can walk up the 1500 steps but it was hot and we were tired so we cheated by driving up the rough road. We met some young guys at the bottom who ran all the way up to meet us as we arrived without seeming out of breath! One of them is going this year to try and get in the Gurkha regiment as were his father and grandfather before him. No wonder he's fit!
From the top there were amazing views over the Annapurna range and we first took in a Hanuman (the monkey god) statue and walked up to "the sacred feet" which turned out to be a set of carved stone foot prints variously attributed to Sita or Rama amongst others.
Walking up the steps to the Kailka Mandir - the main temple - we had to remove shoes and any leather belts etc as leather comes from sacred cows of course. It was somewhat sticky underfoot as the blood of the numerous sacrifices was dripping down the stone steps! This temple is dedicated to Kali a goddess who is an incarnation of the pre-Hindu goddess Shakti. Notoriously blood thirst - we were thankful that the days of human sacrifice have now gone - Shakti demands a lot of blood letting! This was bad news for goats, buffalos chickens and doves!
We missed most of it mercifully as it was late in the day but we passed loads of people (including little children) holding severed goats heads aloft - hence the stickiness under foot. The 2 goats in our picture were given a brief reprieve as they were a bit late to be beheaded - but they were due for the chop the next morning!
It was a weird atmosphere - what amazed me was how calm the animals seemed. Y ou'd think they'd be panicking but they were slumped as if comatose or grazing quietly. All a bit gruesome!
More pleasantly as we left we got a stunning sun kissed view of the Annapurna ranges, as perched on the ridge the palace had a gorgeous outlook.
The next day we went to the Gorkha Museum - a former Shah palace set attractively around a courtyard with similar architecture to the Palace - though there was little information in English which made it hard to get a real grip on what was what! We then spent the rest of the day relaxing in Gorkha and updating the website as ever - almost there now!!
The next day we drove on towards Kathmandu. The first part of the drive was pretty but we had been warned how busy this route was and the last 50 or so kms before we hit town were increasingly busy and the pollution got worse and worse as we neared the city. We saw evidence of some awful accidents - smashed up vehicles everywhere- though thankfully we came through unscathed. The idea had been to arrive early to sort out a camp spot - everyone told us this would be tough in Kathmandu - but it was getting dark as we arrived at the capital and - boy was it busy! We had been given a lead by a Swedish overlander we'd met in Chennai who said he had camped at the Scouts HQ. We had found their number and given them a ring and they'd said they didn't do that anymore.
As we drove in we stopped at a couple of out of town hotels with no luck and in desperation we rang again to see if the Scout leader (or whatever) had any ideas. He then relented and said we could stay. We're not sure if the initial refusal is some sort of endurance test (for your Endurance Badge?) but once we found it it was a perfect spot. A big grassy field right in the middle of town with full 24 hours security - perfect!
So on Tuesday 13 October after hitting the bright lights big city we set up camp at the scouts HQ just metres from Thamel the tourist centre of Kathmandu - what a location!!