Friday, January 8, 2010
Serendipity 1. See a sunrise over the highest mountains in the world
My sister Katrinka made the great suggestion that I start a new list of bonus items - things that I didn't plan on, but had opportunities to do because of the original list. And my brother-in-law Brian's stepmother Kathy (there has to be a simpler way of putting that!)took it further with the excellent idea that it be labelled the Serendipity List. So, here is #1 on the Serendipity List, and I must say, it was truly awesome, in the literal and figurative senses of the word.
At Cliff and Nicole's suggestion, my new friends Jane and Kurt (whose visit to see Cliff and Nicole overlapped with mine) and I decided to get a bit out of Kathmandu to visit the city of Baktapur (such a cool place that the whole city center has been designated by the UN as a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and then continue onward (and upward) to the village of Nagarkot, which is famous as the best place stay if you are too lazy to actually climb up one of the tallest mountains of the world but still want to catch an outstanding view of the sun rising at dawn over the Himalayas.
According to what I was told, once upon a time the heart of Nepal was comprised of three kingdoms that seem to me a lot like city-states, Kathmandu, neighboring Patam and Baktapur. Each of them had (and still has) a Durbar Square, which is the area that kings hung out in, and is loaded in all three cases with scores of temples and fabulous architecture. We paid a guide to take us around Baktapur, and though the tour began in Durbar Square, it also extended to neighboring residential areas, where people live in 3-4 story houses that are hundreds of years old (and often house the family livestock on the first floor), and areas where several local industries -- woodworking, pottery, and Tibetan Thanka painting-- were going on. Since Kurt and I are both water nerds, snapping pictures of wells and community taps wherever we went, our guide pointed those out as well.
After an afternoon spent taking in the sights (and there were a lot) of Baktapur, we headed up to Nagarkot the wimpy way (i.e. by car, as opposed to the hikers and lone mountain biker we saw laboring up the hairpin turns and switchbacks of the mountain road). At the village we had a number of options of where to stay, but for me the choice was clear. If you were in a village with a bunch of hotels, but one of them was called the Hotel at the End of Universe, wouldn't you agree that it's a very easy call? And if that hotel happened to have no central heating, AND the generator providing electricity didn't happen to come on till 9 pm, AND the rooms were set up in such a way that the single person in the group (me) would have an enormous open room and the couple would be stuck in a very small attached room with a very large bed, AND the whole complex happened to be situated at the top of a many sets of steep stairs carved into the hilltop, wouldn't you agree that all of these circumstances just added to the charming quirkiness of the place? I'm sure you would, as Jane and Kurt did, after only about 45 minutes of begging and arm-twisting on my part.
The next morning, though, I felt vindicated, when we scrambled up a few more steps to the top of the hill outside our room. On the hilltop sits a cool little Hindu temple, and a person can stand there, as we and some tourists from Holland did, watching the sun rise and contemplating the fact that it is coming over the tallest mountain range on the planet.
After the sunrise and a rib-sticking breakfast of banana porridge and milk tea (Kurt deferred and had Nepali fried bread), we took the hotel owner's suggestion and drove over to a tower in the area with even more clear views of the mountains. That turned out to be a great move, not only for the views, but also for the chance meeting with a group of three officers from the Nepali Army who were taking a day off from the training exercise they were conducting. As you may or may not know, Nepal provides a disproportionately large contingent of UN peacekeeping forces, and one of the members of the group had served in some pretty extreme situations, including recently in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Another, Manish, is a doctor who got his medical training in China and is about to be deployed to Haiti. He patiently answered the questions I showered him with, and also gave me an impromptu Mandarin Chinese lesson for my ongoing language quest (which will go in a later post because I packed the paper I wrote it on). Our new friends offered to show us a hike we could take from the tower to a nearby village and walked us to the trail head before bidding us farewell.
Of course, in typical travel fashion, the hike turned out to be not the hour we expected, but more like three and a half. It took us through forests, terraced fields, clusters of farm houses, goat and cow herding trails, and lots of people who paused from their work to greet us. It was kind of like walking through a charming fairy tale, except for the unfriendly snarling dogs and a random loose bull bent on defending their turf. After a lot of walking and a bit of concern that perhaps we took a wrong turn somewhere, we came to the main road, and Jane spotted our car in the distance. We popped in it and drove back to Kathmandu, very pleased with ourselves and our trip to The End of the Universe. If you get the chance to check it out yourself, I hope you will. I can give you the name of a memorable place to stay.