(Guest post by Richard Arnold)
February 2002 With my friends Jim Zimmerman, Gary Crose, and my son Christopher Arnold
Part 1 – We prepare
Back in 2002 I decided to visit my son Christopher Arnold. He’d been working in Tokyo for several years and was now on wandering in Asia taking tabla lessons and generally expanding his horizons. I hoped to bring him home with me to Oregon. Also, I always wanted to go Walkabout.
It was also that time of year that husbands and significant others are just “underfoot”. I was commiserating with my friend Jim Zim about this. I told him we were not unloved, it was just a female thing that happened this time of year. Sometime after new year’s eve and before the first greenery of spring. We just needed to bug out, let the ladies drink some white wine together. All would be well when we returned.
My son Christopher e-mailed me that very next day. “Come to Kathmandu. It’s a really neat place. Fine cheerful people and the food is OK.” I emailed him back and said yes. I asked Jim if he’d go. It would be steerage class all the way. No niceties. He said yes. A friend in Tokyo heard about it from Christopher and said he’d like to go too. Fine, he will meet us in Bangkok. Four travelers is just right… easy through customs, no drain on any hotel. No organization. Cool.
Jim’s sister knew a ticket man, gave us his 800 phone number. The ticket man’s first quote was 20% below the internet rates for the flights, so we said yes and gave him our credit card #’s and we were on the way… much to our amazement. Tickets were $1,250 round trip.
I bought a few extra Compact-Flash chips for the camera, a sleeping bag for the hill top hotels. I passed on water filtration gear. Always found beer or hot tea everywhere (and did this time too.). Packed everything in one big duffel with a spare duffel inside for trinkets. A musette bag for carry on from REI and I was ready.
Dropped off at PDX (Portland airport) around 5pm. Destination SFO. (San Francisco International Airport.). Kick around the airport for a while. One last hamburger and micro-beer. We leave at midnight. Mostly Asians going home for a visit. Huge plastic sacks and too many carry-ons. Don’t you know that you are limited to 1 carry on? We feel smug. An American with Rasta locks and totally hemp clothing says that he has NO bags at all. We hate him. He says that he is going back to Kathmandu to re-connect to the cosmic vortex. Now we really hate him.
Lift off and we try to sleep. I watch the little TV screen on the chair in front of me. I see the french movie “Amelie” 3 times with the sound off. It is a good movie. An amazing amount of time goes bye and we are delivered into the Hong Kong airport. It is 5AM and 2 days from when we left PDX by the calendar. For us it has been one very long night. The airport is a palace. Totally empty except for us and security. Everything is locked tight till 7am, so we window shop.
Part 2 – Hong Kong and Bangkok
We are in Hong Kong. The old airport was right in the middle of the city and you flew among the skyscrapers on final approach. Don’t know where we are now. somewhere on an island from the looks of things. Anyway, the shops open up and the prices are astounding. So expensive! Sun glasses for 200 $US and those are the cheap ones. Cameras for 50% more than at Camera World in PDX. Compact flash is twice the price as Fry’s. Coffee? Don’t know the exchange rate but they take Visa/MC. I offer to pay in $US. They give me some change in $HK for a $10US bill.
We explore. Free internet access if you brought your lap top. There is a coffee shop with colorful iMac’s on the right side and Compaq’s on the left side. Free e-mail. There is a long line behind each of the iMac’s… the Compaq’s have no customers at all. We leave just as things are opening up and don’t really have time to see much.
Off to Bangkok. The flight is over clouds the whole way. We begin to see some green farm land just before landing in Bangkok. There are 2 parallel runways with a golf course in between. Either a hook or a slice looks like it could get an airliner. We cross an active fairway with a tunnel below us for the golfers… they wave.
We act nondescript for passport control and they wave us through with no fuss. Some Americans have to be ushered to the line for “foreigners”. We get $100US changed into Thai “baht”. There are 47 baht to a US dollar. The origin of the term baht is a piece of silver the size of a grain of rice. At least the Thais know what their name for currency means. Anybody know what the term “dollar” means? I get into a discussion with Jim on how to convert. My method is double the cost in baht and divide by 100… easy math. Jim’s way is to divide by 47. This is a discussion we will continue to have on our trip. I want quick, he wants precision.
The trip to the town used to be a major hassle of guys with clip boards and pocket protectors “arranging” for taxis. Now they run it like SFO airport and it is cheap at 300-baht ($6US).
Bangkok is built on the east side of a crescent in a big river (just like New Orleans). The center of the loop has the 150 year old hotel “The Oriental” and the new, massive and luxurious “Shangrila”. There is a shopping area about the hotels that extends to the east along Silom road. Silom (sometimes Si Lom) has shops on both sides for at least a mile till it intersects with Rama IV in the infamous red light district “Pat Pong”. (Think Moulin Rogue rather than East Burnside) Rama IV is named after the guy Yul Brunner played in the musical “The King and I”. Don’t mention it to the Thais though, they think the musical is insulting to their king and to their heritage. Anyway, if you want to go to the train station, it is about one mile to the northwest along Rama IV road in an area called Trimitr. Silom road continues east past Lumpini Park which is like NYC’s central park. It has lakes with swans, ice cream vendors and most importantly… the kick boxing stadium. After passing some very boring office buildings, you come to Silom Center which is a huge marble air conditioned shopping mall. Real Gucci/Bally stuff at Switzerland prices are available here. The huge movie complex has lazyboy rockers and serves beer and appetizers while you watch non-pirated versions of 1st run movies. A bit further east and you come to another complex of hotels at the juncture of Rama IX and Silom. Go north west on Rama IX and you get to the Royal Palace. Along Rama IX is the “Pantip” shopping mall where you can buy cheap pirated computer stuff. The Thais will tell you (wink, wink) that it is Very Cheap. They imply that the hardware fell off the truck on the way to the US. Maybe true, hard to tell. The prices are not low. Apple has an official Apple Store there. After that, Silom goes further east to the airport.
Jim’s sister has told us about the “Former-New-Rotel” hotel. It has gone through many changes of ownership and I don’t think anybody knows what it is now called. It is owned by a Danish travel agency and we seem to be the only non Scandinavians there. Tall blonds in tee shirts, shorts and Birkenstocks. All have guide books and stand around on street corners reading them. It is 400 baht a day… that’s about $9US. Pretty cheap. The rooms are concrete blocks with a raised toilet-shower room with a common drain. It is right next to the famous and fabulous Oriental Hotel. But, our air conditioner works and the linens are clean. Not bad for “steerage”. I’ve told Jim that the Thais have a predilection for shirts with buttons, long pants and leather lace up shoes. Don’t know why, they just do. So we are sweating more than the Danish here in the 90 degree heat. Jim is wondering if I have mis-led him on clothes to pack.
We head for The Oriental cause we’re feeling like a splurge. The Bamboo Bar is suitably elegant and we stroll around the pool and the riverside dining area feeling most happy with ourselves. We head back to rest up, send off our laundry, and tryout Asian MTV. My friend Gary is there in the lobby!
He is a day early. Confused by the international date line thing. No matter. The Former-New- Rotel has room. A bit spartan, but Gary is getting into the swing of things. He got off the plane from Tokyo and got some baht from an ATM. He figured that a thousand of anything must be a lot in any currency, so that would be enough for his trip. He was astounded by the 300 baht taxi fare, so he rode public transportation from the airport. It cost him 6 hours, he had to lug his bags around, but he saved 150 baht! I told him that he saved about $3 US and we got into a big discussion on quick calculation of exchange rates versus precision. Oh well, let’s go get dinner. We head for The Oriental for dinner. The door men flock around Gary to bar his way. He is wearing sandals! Sorry sir, we’d love to have you come back again some day when you are properly dressed. Very forceful for a Thai. Gary gets feeling all humble and gets lace up shoes. The doormen smile and welcome him. Dinner is very reasonable by my calculations (Multiply by 2, divide by 100… to get $US). Gary is feeling humble still so he asks for the wine list. Jim and Gary discuss wines. They agree that all the wines on the list are “poor”, but decide on and an Australian vintage from a grower that is “trying really hard”. I point out that the cost is really very high and get into a discussion on exchange rate calculations again. They agree to buy it and when the bill is settled, the cost of the wine is more than we will pay for all our hotel lodging on the entire trip. A bit disgruntled, we retire for the night.
Next day we take the water taxi to the Grand Palace. Lovely. Cost is about 15 cents apiece. (They let me do quick calculations now) We wait in line for the Grand Palace and Gary is surrounded by guards with FAL-FN machine guns and look very unhappy. He is escorted away without words. He comes back with some dorky looking shoes and a faded aloha shirt… on loan from the staff. Tee-shirts and scandals are an affront to Thai dignity, especially at one of their most revered sites. Jim is happy that he and I are wearing long pants, shirts with buttons and lace up shoes.
The Grand Palace is wonderful. It has a illustrated story board re-telling of the Rama Yana on the walls surrounding the main enclosure: about 1 mile, perhaps a bit less. I took closeups for desk top use and for the first time, did not have to worry about running out of film. Gorgeous.
More things happen in Bangkok, but… Off to Kathmandu…
Part 3 – Off to Katmandu
The Thais want 500 baht for the use of their airport. Fair enough. Cheaper than Disney Land and more fun. We eat up the rest of our baht in a breakfast shop. “Duty Free” shopping is a rip here, but not as bad as Hong Kong.
The flight to Kathmandu goes over Burma/Myanmar and nobody shoots at us. Our 2nd breakfast is courtesy of Thai Airlines and is very good. We are happy. We get to the Sea of Bengal and turn north up the coast. Presumably, we fly over Calcutta. The stewardess points to Mt Everest. Not the big one she says… but off to the left in the distance. We all say that we see it. We continue north and the land below us turns dusty brown.
We are in Kathmandu.
Small airport. The air is cool and clean. Big lines at the airport. We all have to go from one line to another. Everyone seems to have gotten themselves into the wrong line and has to shift from one to another. Suddenly, I see: there is no right line. Whatever the order, everybody has to go through each line, the order does not seem to matter. It costs $35 US to enter Nepal. Maybe not if you don’t look like a rich gringo, but we are beginning to feel generous to the experience. Everybody is beginning to smile at us. The lines are actually not all that long. Oh, and one last thing…on entering Nepal: You need extra passport pictures. Of course, you don’t have them with you at the airport on your arrival. But, no problem, there is a photographer right there who will make the extra copies for only $35US. Christopher had told me about this, so I snapped 5-6 of myself with a digital camera, downloaded them with iPhoto, selected 2 of the best and did a proof sheet in iPhoto. I had about 20 of them. The airport guy looked at the one I handed smiled and said: “New rule! We need 2 more for the tourist police and the army as well as one for immigration.” I said, No problem, here are 5 more. He just smiled and waved me through without collecting any extra photos.
Suddenly we get the last stamp on the wad of paper we are collecting and the guy with the machine gun smiles and says welcome to Nepal, have fun. We wander into the parking lot and there is my son Christopher with a big van from the hotel.
The drivers (3 of them) remark that tourism is off since 9/11 and they are desperate for visitors. We drive of to town and descend into a brownish grey murk. The road turns into a one lane road so full of potholes we drive onto the shoulder to get by… and this is a “main” road. Small 125cc 2-stroke motorbikes zip about. The riders wear their helmets perched high on their heads. So high, they might blow off in the wind or bounce off if they hit a bump. Style is important in any country. A few round-a-bouts and we are into the old part of the city: Thamel. Hard to see the end of a block, the street twists so much. Tourists gone native clog the streets and will not yield to any taxi. (They dodge the motorbikes though!) Street vendors chase them about. The brown grey murky clouds are so thick you can hardly see where the street turns. We get to the high iron gates of the “Kathmandu Guest House” and get waved in by the guards. We are home!
The courtyard of the “KGH” has a bar and pizza oven. Fairly obscene wooden sculptures line the walls. Fantastic beasts and humans having sex. They are an old nepalese design we will see again on the temples. Only the tourists seem to notice them. The rooms are priced at 500 rupees or approximately $4 US per night. (78 rupees to the dollar. Multiply by 3 divide by 4 (cut in half twice) and remove 2 zeros… to get $US). We dump our stuff and head out to see the sights.
It is late afternoon and a bit cold. The heavy smog/smoke is making me cough and looks really spooky in the lengthening shadows. We wind our way down the streets to Durbar Square. This is a “World Heritage Site” and we pay $10 US for a one week ticket. We exchange $100US into rupees and get a receipt. $100us will go a very long way in Nepal and while most tourist places accept Master Card and Visa. most of the places we go to are cash only. The receipt will also be proof that we are illegally changing money on the black market.
Durbar Square is a collection of temples and whatnot going back to the 1300’s. Most of it dates from around 1750-1830. Most remarkable, but you can look it up somewhere for a more complete description. We go up to a restaurant on the 3rd floor of a building on the east side of the square. It looks nasty, but Christopher says it is good. We suck down giant size beers for safe hydration and order up some spinach/cheese enchiladas. Really good. The local diet is lentils and rice. For exotic dining, try the Mexican entries. The view is nice from the windows and we lean out the low window casements like we are immune from silly accidents. It seems that we are.
It is evening when we leave the restaurant and we go to see the “living goddess”. She is chosen as a 6 year old and lives in isolation and relative luxury one of the temples in Durbar Square. Her house is brick with big wooden lacework window shades overlooking an interior court yard. Christopher says we can yell out “Hey Goddess!” and she will come out and wave… but it will cost us 100 rupees for this service. For some reason we don’t do this. I am not sure why, religious qualms? Cheap bastards? I wish we’d done it now.
It is getting cold and we head back. We pass the temple of Shiva and it has Shiva with Parvati (Consort) looking out a top window. They are just dolls of course, but they are holding hands and waving to the crowd below. It reminds me of a Christmas decoration in a department store window.
We pass a huge statue of Mahākāla all covered on blood and dancing about on the skeletons of the dead. He looks very happy. (When I get home I will find that I took about 15 pictures of this statue in all sorts of light and all sorts of angles.) The night is cold and the smog is REALLY strange. We get home to the “KGH” and go to bed early.
Part 4 – Katmandu day 2
We wake up early and it is chilly but not too cold. We have coffee in the KGH courtyard and it is foul. They call it espresso! Christopher asks if this espresso is made from Nescafe Instant and they happily say yes, it is. We move on to a coffee shop near Christopher’s favorite internet cafe. (The going rate is 30 rupees per hour. They have a single 28k modem that they share among 5-10 other Compaq’s by using a router.) The Nutmeg Café.
It is down an alley where all the travel and trekking companies have offices. One company is the same that runs the Bangkok hotel we stayed at. We drop in to say hello and talk about trekking packages. Gary wants to do the Annapurna circuit and he has read up on it. Jim and I go across the street to the cafe that is just about to open. We try to place our order, but the staff waves us off, they must pray first. They get a big rock bowl full of burning powdery incense and waft smoke over all the trees plants chairs and tables in the courtyard. Then they go inside a covered area and smoke down that too. Birds come down to the trees outside and watch. A mynah bird in the covered area gives a running commentary on the progress of the praying. The mynah seems to be talking a human language, but it is one that we can’t understand. Leftover cookies and pastries and offered to the birds who fly down from the tree branches and eat them up. The praying seemed to be over and a tall skinny waiter brings us each a double espresso. He looks just like a very good friend of mine from high school, but what is the point of telling him? He says we look like double espresso people. Jim goes over to order some munchies and gets one of everything they have. Scones, cheese croissant… we are overwhelmed! The Nutmeg Café turns into an instant habit. We will come here to start each day in Kathmandu.
Gary and Christopher come back with all sorts of brochures and full of enthusiasm for their trekking trip. Christopher has done the circuit before and thinks we have time for an abbreviated portion, a mini-loop as it were. The Annapurna range runs east-west along the northern border of Nepal. It has 4 major peaks called Annapurna-1, Annapurna-2, Annapurna-3, and Annapurna-4. There are a few peaks that are not major and don’t appear on the brochure at all. The entire range is within the borders of Nepal, hence “The Circuit”. The border goes over the top of Everest and the circuit is owned by neither China nor Nepal. Till the Chinese get their tour company business up and functioning, there are no Everest circuits. Jim and I just listen to all this while getting our coffee fix. Jim climbed most of the cascades with the Mazamas before he fell off climbing a rock face and got busted up. I can tell Jim is listening intently.
We are off to the Monkey Temple. Taxi’s get ignored, We walk! I try ignoring a motorbike that is playing chicken with me and get brushed on the elbow with a mirror. Won’t try that again. Another tourist is trained by the local drivers. We walk to the west and cross a river, then up a hill. Adults grin at us, children laugh and wave. Are we doing something different? Maybe tourists are supposed to go by taxi?
The hill pauses at the base of the Monkey Temple, then goes straight up at a 45/60 degree angle. Small shrines along the steps give you a chance to rest and talk with all the vendors. “Hey mister! Where you from?” We will hear this a lot. It is not a question in the sense that we understand the words, it is an offer to sell us something, a demand that we buy. The people here all seem to speak english. It is just that the words mean slightly different things to us. Hey, who’s to say. English is their language too.
On the Monkey temple there is a big stupa with “Buddha Eyes” peering out at the horizon at all 4 compass points. Monkeys mill about. Vendors swarm about. Off to the north side there is a church and Christopher and I want to go in. Gary and Jim say to hurry up we need to move on. OK. Christopher and I go into the chapel and pause at a thick tapestry covering a door way. We hear some movement on the other side and go into a short passageway with another thick tapestry at the end. We peak into the next room and it is filled with monks seated on benches built into the walls on either side of a long narrow room. A monk in red robes and a towering yellow hat orders us to sit at his feet. (He does this with gestures and we are not about to argue.) The monks begin a droning chant. Then there are blaring trumpets and crashing cymbals. A Tibetan Sādhanā is in full swing. I am just amazed. You see these things in movies. Here it is right in front of me. The trumpets are about 10 feet long and jointed. The players are huffing into them rather continuously. (Christopher, who knows these things, tells me that it is necessary to keep the humidity and temperature constant in order to get the air column to resound. While he is telling me, one of the trumpet players smiles and winks at me.) They say the same thing hundreds of times with no variation that I can easily detect. The cymbals and trumpets just signal to each other but the chant slowly evolves. Maybe saying the prayer so often makes it mundane, and if mundane… becomes natural. Maybe the chant does not change, maybe it is the intonation that slowly evolves with the repetition. I can’t move! I am held and engulfed by the sound in this small room. It is simply astonishing. Finally things pause and the air seems thick with the silence of the monks. After some time, everyone slowly takes an audible deep breath and smiles break out. The younger monks break up into happy chattering groups. It is like a pick-up game of b-ball has just ended. I half expect them to pop each other on the butt with rolled up towels. Why be dour after prayer? The priest that led the ceremony smiles at us and thanks us for attending their prayers. I know enough Thai to mumble something appropriate… thank you honored sir. It seems to work. Jim Zim is nose to nose with a monkey and they match each other with smiles nods and grins.
Gary is simply lost in view of Katmandu below.
We head back by another route and really do Durbar Square. A famous sadhu is roaming about smiling and winking at us. He has ocher in his hair so it stands out sideways like Bozo The Clown. He is mostly naked and must be cold. He is also mostly stoned. He smokes a big joint of ganja the size of a policeman’s billy club, large enough to stun an ox with a single blow. (There are several other sadhu about the square too. They really like the temple of Shiva.) Christopher says it costs a whole bunch of money to take his picture, so if you really want to do it, fix on a price first. His rates have gone up since he got on the cover of a famous guide book. We are weary of all this exotica and decide to break up and go shopping.
Jim needs jewels for his lady, I tag along and we meet Mustapha. He is the most forceful salesman I have ever heard. Jim buys a largish sack of goodies. It only takes us about 3 hours to complete the transaction. I will meet Mustapha again, but so ends the 2nd day in Kathmandu
Part 5 – Katmandu day 3
Breakfast at the Nutmeg Café and we check in again with the trekking company next door. We discuss the Maoist uprising. Nothing to worry about say the trekking companies. Jim looks for plane tours of the peaks. One company says the other touring use low wing planes… can’t see down to the peaks through the wings. (I ask Jim to be sure they supply oxygen at such altitudes. Hey Jim, do you know where that oxygen mask has been?) Another company says their plane has cleaner windows that the high wing guys. Nice competition for the tourist dollar.
We are off to the Pashupatinath Temple. (There are many different spelling in English. I guess that they are all wrong. Only the local native script is correct. Every sign in English seems to have it spelled differently, and I was too cheap to buy a guide book.) We all pile into a dusty mini bus for he price of a single cab. We negotiate the price down from $20US to 200 rupees… about $3US. And we are off. This is a Hindu temple where they burn their dead.
It is along a wide shallow river and has rock surfaced abutments from the quay jutting out to the river. There are about 6 of these places. A burn pile is smoking away on the abutment furthest down stream and mourners pile on some wet straw to make it smoke even more. We cross over on a bridge to get a better view while not intruding so obviously. A German film crew is snapping away and giving some commentary (in German) to annotate the goings on. A bunch of sadhus are preening away and smoking out billows of ganja. They are trying to get in front of the camera, but the Germans keep shooing them away. We sit on the terraced steps (Called a ghat) and watch for a while. A body is brought out to another burning spot. It is wrapped in linen and colorful silk. People are milling about, some one has brought lunch, someone is arranging for the wood. The body is just lying there like a mummy. Suddenly there is a horrible shrieking and a lady throws herself onto the body. Everybody around her breaks down and cries too. It is a funeral after all. We feel ashamed, we thought we were watching a picnic. Later we compare notes and find out that none of us took any pictures.
We climb up the hill on the other side of the river. Brick temples line the way up and down to the other side. It is a beautiful walk. Families really do come there for picnics. We cross another river and come out to an amazing sight: A Hilton or maybe a Marriott! It looks like space aliens have landed and built this thing. It has green grass with lawn sprinklers. The steel fence is not rusty. The gate is freshly painted and has guards uniformed by Lord Cardigan (of Light Brigade fame). No machine guns though… Glad we are traveling “steerage”. Otherwise we might be trapped in a place like that. We get lost. We find a busy main street and cross it like matadors crossing the bull ring: Relaxed but mindful. Taxis and trucks play chicken with us but we effortlessly elude them. We are getting used to this strange place.
Christopher knows this street, it is Boudhanath (spelling certainly wrong). We go up an alley and pay a “World Heritage” admission fee. There is an absolutely HUGE stepped stupa. The first level of the stupa is easily 100 yards in diameter. The second level is maybe 75 yards in diameter and makes, in effect, a walkway around the top of the first layer. People walking about (clockwise of course) on the second layer to bless their purchases.
Bodinath is not only the center of the Tibetan culture in Kathmandu, it is a shopping center! Restaurants are on the top of the surrounding buildings. You can people watch as they gain karma by shopping (In a clockwise motion). We stop for some beer and burritos. The waiter recognizes Christopher as a repeat customer and we get a discount. We are honored, so tip him extra for the great service. We can see the Himalayas from here! Wow, just white capped mountains all along the north. I am impressed. (Smog to the south-east where Kathmandu nestles in a relative crevice.) We are elated.
Jim finds a monk store. He asks if it is OK to buy a Tibetan monk outfit for wearing back in Wilsonville, Oregon. The store owner says sure, that Buddha will be happy for him to wear a priest outfit. The owner shows him a woolen robe that is … just like the Dali Llama wears! It might even get him some extra good karma. No problem! But, Jim demurs. The owner tells Jim that the Dali Llama would be proud that a tourist from Oregon would want to emulate him… by wearing an outfit like his. (Jim regrets not buying the Dalai Llama robes to this day.)
Christopher goes off and buys a 10 foot Tibetan trumpet. I am aghast, how will he get it home? Not to worry says Christopher, first we must bless it, then Buddha will provide. Besides, it collapses into itself and is only 5 feet when folded up. So we begin hiking about the stupa to bless our purchases.
We meet a monk and Christopher begins chatting him up, asking advice and all. A tourist comes up to the priest and hands him a thanka. (This is a painting done by monks as a meditation, they are abundant in Kathmandu.)
Hey priest, bless my painting! Sure says the monk who takes the painting under his arm and walks off… and continues his chat with Christopher. The tourist looks confused. The priest says that if he wants to do it himself, he can walk to around the stupa well as a priest. The tourist looks puzzled. He asks if that’s all it takes to bless the painting… why not walk it about on the upper terraces where the walk will be shorter and it will take less time. The priest agrees that the upper terraces are just as effective, for the painting, but not as effective for you. So the three of us slow down and walk together to bless the painting. The tourist is an analyst from the US Defense Department and works in the Pentagon. His boss advised him to take a little R&R in Kathmandu. We are all smiles, the day is lovely. We sit down to take in the view and soon pick up some other pilgrims. They are from Amsterdam and are blessing their purchases too. It is nice here.
We are tired and head back. We agree to meet at sunset of dinner and we each wander off on our own.
Continued in chapter Journey to Annapurna