A Step Back in Time--Kathmandu, Nepal 1978
Updated: Mar 27, 2021
I walked out of the Kathmandu airport and grabbed one of the old, dented taxis to take into the city. Arriving at the Asia Hotel, I handed the driver some rupees. He looked at the wad of crumpled bills, scratched his head, and handed me my change. It was a piece of hashish the size of a golf ball.
Yes, those were certainly strange days.
It was the end of March 1978; for two years I had been teaching in Australia and living on a surf beach. I had taped a world map to the wall of my little bungalow, and I carefully planned my trip through Asia back to the States. I had completed my teaching commitment in Victoria and looked forward to being on the road. I considered staying in Australia as some of my friends had, but my urge to travel was too great. So, by the time I got to Katmandu I’d spent several months backpacking through Southeast Asia. I was travel worn and looked forward to a trek in the Himalayas—I knew the mountains would clear my head.
Kathmandu is a wonderfully strange city. It was the architecture that first struck me—such an old feeling with echoes of what life was like a long time ago. Then the incredible assortment of people in a vast array of traditional garb is fascinating. This included the locals as well as the tourists and travelers.
At the post office I met and talked with a tall, slender American with medium length hair and a quizzical expression on his face. He was a pilot and had been with World Airways in Vietnam; that was the old CIA operated organization . . . as he said, “Spookys.” He also flew in Bolivia--something to do with tin—and had lived there. He still worked with World Airways and was trying to call in sick from the post office in Kathmandu. He wanted to take a couple of weeks off. He was just one of the many characters I met there.
I was walking toward the square and passed a guy who looked familiar. He was tall, had light curly hair and a beard, and looked like a guy I knew back in Fort Collins, Colorado. I said hello and of course he was someone I didn’t know, much as I suspected. [I think this was one of the motivations for the line of a song I wrote around that time: “And when you’re far away is a strange and foreign place, looking for old friends in every stranger’s face . . .”] I went on to the square and found a place to sit and watch people when that same guy came up and asked if I played chess. I did so we went into a restaurant/bar beside the square and had a great chess game.
While we played chess, other people came in and sat down to watch. Two really rustic and fairly old men came in. They were so interesting looking I wish I knew more about them. The older guy had a cane with an exotic silver head; it was beautiful. I saw him near the square again a few days later.
At breakfast I met Tom Thake from the States who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malaysia, working with the forestry department there. Tom talked about logging in Thailand and if they didn’t do something the Thais would have no more Teak as it was all being cut down and exported mostly to Japan. Tom said Teak would be in great demand if it is used up.
Tom and I began a walk to the monkey temple outside of Kathmandu, up on the hill. It rained and we stopped on the street to stand under a small shelter and watch the people and animals moving around. A long-haired goat came in and shared the shelter with us. When the rain had just about stopped the goat gently placed his head against Tom’s leg and began to press firmly against him, pushing him. We took the hint and left the shelter then walked down the street
to the scenic bridge over the river. The rain started again so we found another place to wait for it to stop. While we waited we talked to some school kids and I looked at one of their schoolbooks. Always the teacher . . .
We decided to give the temple a miss because of the rain and because Tom had to meet a friend later. On the way down the hill back toward the bridge I heard moaning and wailing. Tom and I stopped and looked over the stone fence lined with bushes and found ourselves gazing down on a funeral in progress. About 8 to 10 people were with an old man who was apparently mourning the death of his wife. She was lying on a large pile of wood and her body was covered with an orange-colored cloth. Her head was uncovered, and it looked like something was on part of her face, but I was too far away to see any real details. I felt odd watching as the people moved around the body and threw liquid onto the corpse—some sort of religious oil or holy water I suppose. They were about to set the wood afire and cremate the body, but Tom and I didn’t wait around to watch.
We walked toward our hotel and talked to some other travelers who had heard about problems in Lukla with weather that was keeping planes from flying. Lukla was where the Everest trek began. About 300 people were supposedly stranded there and food was running out—bread was at $4.00 a loaf. I had considered doing my trek in the Everest region but now that didn’t sound like such a good idea. Tom suggested I go with him and his friend Kevin to do the Annapurna trek for several weeks. So, I changed my plans again . . . no one can accuse me of not being flexible.
The next day I went alone up to the Monkey Temple called Swayambhu. It was an invigorating walk. Before the temple you must ascend stairways up the hill where the temple rests. The steps are steep and there are trees around where monkeys play. Beggars hang out on the steps on the way up. From the top there is a nice view of the Kathmandu valley. For the first time the mountains were in view and not obscured by clouds or haze from dust and pollution.
When I got back to the hotel, I found a note from Tom about trekking permits. It was 3:00pm and I was afraid that it was too late to get my permit and extend my visa to stay in Nepal, but the guy at the desk called the office and luckily it was still open. I rented a bicycle and rode quickly to the permit office—had no problem getting a visa extension and a 3-week permit for Annapurna. We picked up our passports and trekking permits on Sunday afternoon and left for Pokhara the next day.
Being in Kathmandu for those days was about as long as I’d been anywhere since Bali. It had felt good to hang out and explore this strange and wonderful city.
I returned to Kathmandu in 1992 with a group of students from Singapore American School. The place hadn’t changed that much in the 14 years since I’d last been there. Kathmandu is one of those magical places and I consider myself lucky to have spent time there in the 70’s and again in the 90’s.
My next post will be about Pokkara and the trek.
Some further shots of the market area in Kathmandu: