It’s with a sigh of relief, as well as sadness and a rather nasty chesty cough that we bid goodbye to India and head to Nepal. Three months in India is about as long as I can take in one go these days. It’s been great, it’s always great, but it takes it’s toll in so many, many ways….
Kathmandu – the city of my dreams! Just the name alone invokes in me faraway looks of longing and deep sighs. Ever since my first visit here I’ve been in love with it and even though I toyed briefly with thinking Tibet a more magical place I now realize that it’s Nepal that is the true wonderland. Although from Kathmandu itself you can’t see any decent mountains, there’s always the knowledge that they’re just there behind the valley walls, and a short bus ride to the valley rim will reward you with truly majestic panoramas. Of course, to really appreciate the Himalayas you need to get out of town but we’ve got lovely 3 month visas so let’s not get ahead of ourselves…! In the short term it’s the sites and restaurants of Kathmandu that are on our hit list.
It’s with the greatest of irony then that I arrive in Kathmandu a little under the weather. It was that last overnight train journey in India that did for me and I’m battling a flu-ey type thing that has spread to my guts. Now it wouldn’t be an over exaggeration to say that one ‘Everest Steak House’ has been the most reminisced over and dreamed about restaurant in the world for Rich and I since our last visit here 8 years ago. Oh cruel, cruel fate – to put me within a steak knife’s distance of the restaurant of my dreams and then make me completely unable to digest!
Luckily I’m soon feeling well enough, if not yet to tuck into a medium rare steak with brown sauce (my favourite on ESH’s extremely extensive menu) then to do some exploring, so a dawn visit to Pashupatinath and an evening at Bodhnath occupy our first couple of days. Pashupati is one of my favourite Hindu gods – Shiva in the form of the ‘Lord of the Animals’. What a great concept and his temple in Kathmandu is pretty awesome too with a huge Nandi statue out front and stable (for want of a better word) of exquisitely bizarre sadhus. Although he doesn’t seem to be currently in residence, my favourite of the Pashupatinath sadhus is ‘Milk Baba’ – a dude who claims to have only consumed milk for the last 60 years. Is that medically possible? There’s another guy who’s held his arm in the air for 15 years and amongst these chaps sitting with your legs tucked behind your head all day is positively passé (see image above left). Needless to say it’s all very photogenic, and I’ll put aside my prejudice against portrait photography for someone who has dreads down to the floor. Pashupatinath is also the most important of the cremation sites in Kathmandu and there’s a steady stream of corpses waiting to be burned on the ghats here. Unlike in Varanasi the Nepalis don’t seem to give two hoots about tourists photographing the grizzly disposal of their loved ones but I like to think that the aim of my photography these days is more esthetics and less freak-show so I pass up the chance to snap a smoking dead person.
Following on that theme, Bodhnath, the centre of the Tibetan community in exile in Nepal, has been in the news recently for a similar reason except that here, tragically, the participants have not been dead when they’ve been set fire to. Although the Beijing government would love us to believe that the Tibetans are living blissfully in the ‘blue-glass-and-white-tiled’ Lhasa the Chinese have created for them, the rise in the incidence of self-immolations in Tibet over the last few years tells a different story, and now a self immolation has occurred here in Bodhnath too. I can’t quite imagine what would impel anyone to such a dire act but it’s certainly a definitive gesture if ever there was one…Thankfully all’s peaceful during our visit here and we join the stream of prayer-wheel spinning devotees in a clockwise direction around the stupa while soaking up the wonderful evening atmosphere.
We seem to be playing some kind of tag game with sickness; no sooner am I feeling tip top again than Rich is brought down by something nasty. It means that we end up delaying our trekking and staying longer in Kathmandu than originally planned but hey, I’m in no rush to leave and in the meantime we can visit some other sites around town like Swayambhunath stupa (see image above right) where I was once attacked by a monkey…but that’s another trip and another story!
The above picture was taken at Bodhnath and shows the huge stupa at the heart of Kathmandu’s Tibetan community in exile. It’s a great place to hang around – if you’re into portraits there’s a plethora of weathered Tibetan faces and monks in dark red robes to fill many a memory card. Portrait photography doesn’t really do it for me, though, so my mission here was to find a good viewpoint and try to capture a twilight image. I did some experimenting with shutter speeds to determine the optimum exposure time in order to blur some of the people on the stupa platform without blurring them so much that they became transparent. After some trial and error I found the best to be between 0.6 and 0.8 of a second, so a combination of aperture, ISO and ND filters was used to generate this shutter speed.
If you spend any time at all in the book and poster shops of Thamel, you’ll soon notice for sale a panoramic image of this stupa covered in Tibetan butter lamps. It looks absolutely magic and I’ve always wanted to get that picture, but despite numerous enquiries nobody could ever tell me when exactly this butter lamp festival takes place. Well, I’ve now learnt that the lamps aren’t lit any more for health and safety reasons! See my last blog entry ‘Uttar Pradesh, India‘ for my opinion on that….!