I could feel the dust on my lips as the taxi bounced up the hill past Pashupati. With at most one hour of sleep behind me since the previous morning, the idea of a shower in the guesthouse at Baudha was a shining promise. I really had not been able to sleep, so breakfast at 4:00 a.m. on the night-liner to Kathmandu had at least been a diversion. I’d watched a couple of Star Wars films, but they hadn’t made the time pass all that much faster.
If any reminder were needed that I’d entered another world, the baggage claim area quickly provided one. Not here, the outwardly patient, inwardly nervous, wait for your bag to appear on the carousel. No. Here the bags are pulled off the moving track – don’t ask me by whom or why – into a loose heap on the floor. Ignore the shouting, but join in the pushing, shoving and scrambling through and around this heap: that’s the way to go! Within less than an hour you can then fill in your landing card and your visa application, get a receipt for the visa fee, apply for and be granted the visa and go out to meet the buses, trucks, cars, taxis and hustlers that fill the car park at Tribhuvan International Airport.
I had asked a policeman to tell me where all the taxis were. He assigned me a hustler, who led me to the taxi with whom he had an arrangement. A price was agreed, including a finder’s tip. To my surprise, I learned later that the price had been entirely reasonable. So we headed off into the yellow dust and the grindingly slow traffic. It dawned on me how much I in fact love the elegance of traffic lights and roundabouts – who knew? Excessive speed was not the rule – it would wreck your suspension anyway. The code rather seemed to be, “Keep leftish, and push forward.” Not a bad motto for life itself, I suppose. During the longer jams, I got the driver to say “Please” and “Thank you” in Nepali into my phone. I thought I might learn them. It was a good intention.
I had been looking at maps to refresh my memory of Kathmandu. It was clear that the Rokpa Guesthouse was well tucked away, and that getting a taxi up to it would require more detailed local knowledge than the driver had, so I got him simply to drop me at the stupa gate. I was, in any case, keen to enjoy the moment of walking through that gate into the very special space that surrounds the stupa as soon as I possibly could.
It worked. The moment you step through the gate, the noise and dust from the street fall away; you see the south face of the stupa right in front of you, and you know that you are in a remarkable place.
The “kora” is the road directly encircling the stupa itself, and it was a nice surprise to find that it – and the small roads leading immediately off it – had been paved. Wheeling the luggage the two or three hundred metres to the Rokpa Guesthouse was therefore easy. Hemraj, the manager, guessed straightaway who I was, and although my booking didn’t officially start until 5 p.m., the room was already prepared, so I was able to move straight in. Hemraj gave me the crucial details, including the most important thing of all: a slip of paper with the Wi-Fi passwords on it.
Shower, change, rest, send messages home. I was alone on this trip – we have no less than six cats and dogs at home, some old, including one very, very old, tottering, blind and incontinent cat. Endless love and care are needed, and the upshot is that my wife and I don’t feel able to go away together. So Sarah was providing the TLC while I explored KTM.
I had received a lot of generous help and advice in the run-up to the trip, and prepared a careful plan describing what to do and where to go. Somehow, however, I had failed to bring any paper copy, digital copy, Internet link or whatever with me. The gods seemed to be telling me that now was the time to go with the flow, to follow whichever way the wind blew.
Neither Chris Finn nor I can remember how we first came into virtual contact, but I have known him “virtually” for fifteen or more years. After several years in Bhutan, he had now been in Kathmandu for six months – I was looking forward to meeting him in “meatspace” for the first time. I was hoping for hints and tips on where to go, what to do and, for that matter, how much to pay. With a bit of messaging we agreed to meet near the stupa entrance.
I will digress here, as two places will get mentioned quite often in this diary. There is a difference between the stupa gate, which is on the south side, leading from the kora out to the busy main Baudha Road, and the stupa entrance. This is on the north side and gives access from the kora into the stupa itself. A large temple – the Tamang/Nyingma temple, officially the Ghayanghuti Gompa – sits opposite this entrance, easily recognised by an enormous bell just outside its main door.
We arranged to meet at the entrance. I had told Chris that I would be easy to recognise from my black fedora.
But as it happened I’d seen half a dozen pictures of him before, and recognised him sitting by the bell. I suggested buying him his evening meal in return for all the hints and tips I planned to get off him, and that’s how it worked out. The first tip was his favourite eatery, the Friendship Laamain Restaurant, which turned out to be well worth knowing, along with the fact that the coffee shop next door serves arguably the best coffee in Baudha. There is one that is almost as good on the kora itself, but the coffee is Rs.100 there and only Rs.60 at the Espresso Coffee Shop (open for the first devotee rush at 6.30am). You also get a warm smile.
I didn’t go to Kathmandu to avoid the sounds of the long alpine horns, chalings, cymbals, bells and drums that emanate from the temples. All the same, I came to appreciate that the Friendship’s background music – Highway 61 Revisited, Hotel California, and the Bob Dylan version of House of the Rising Sun, to name but three – was often a welcome relief. Sound-track to all the valuable pointers Chris gave me.