Going nowhere in Kathmandu, China’s worst winter in 50 years

Travel Journal Overview: Riots aside, I should have been ready to hit the road for Tibet. I had everything sorted out with an agent. Only one thing now stood in the way. The worst Chinese winter in 50 years.

Happy New Year - Losar, Tibetan New Year (click to enlarge)
Happy New Year - Losar, Tibetan New Year (click to enlarge)

Stephi pointed to the front page of the Kathmandu Times. My eyes widened as I saw the thousands of Chinese people stranded at the train station. China was having its worst weather in decades, and it was their new year to make matters worse. Over the next few days I spent time in researching my Tibet trip, and the situation in China. Monique had moved out of the guest house and into an orphanage where she worked. It was easier to live in a cramped bedroom come Hindu shrine than battle Kathmandu traffic.

What to do, in Kathmandu when there’s no where to go

This gave Stephi and me more time in exploring Kathmandu. I liked Stephi, she was young, early 20’s yet well versed and independent. She knew Kathmandu better than me, and it seemed she had been living there for months. She knew the local bus routes, the cheaper options at the market, and what’s more she shared a similar pessimistic style of humor as I.

Two new volunteer arrivals at the guest house rounded off the new permanent resident group. A German girl Cathrine who was quickly christened ‘Sticky Pants’ due to her lacking of clean jeans. And a tall blond head strong student girl from Holland called Anna.

Guest house companionship

Our mornings were filled with pancake breakfasts and jibes over newspaper articles chronicling the worsening weather conditions in China and the deft comments over Stephi’s lack of volunteering work. My afternoons were taken up with one of more of the non volunteering group either shopping for night time cooking at the guest house, movie buying or general missions of a shopping kind.

The slums around Kathmandu (click to enlarge)
The slums around Kathmandu (click to enlarge)

Monkey temples and Singing bowls

On one occasion I went with Stephi and Cathy to Swayambhunath, the monkey temple. A place deftly named after the massive collection of baboon’s that enjoyed pinching fruit from both tourist and locals pockets. We were more adapt at life in Kathmandu now. We all sported ID passes allowing us through Dubar Square for free. We also found ways to enter the monkey temple for free, albeit through a very round about way.

I was on a mission to find a quality singing bowl. My first had been bought for a mere 200rupees from an old lady in dubar square. With some practice it had become my pride in being the only musical instrument I could and still can play. It was basically a round metal bowl that when its rim was rubbed with a wooden stick would emit a high pitches tone. Not exactly rocket science, but then one has to start somewhere.

Celebrating new years day with a feast in Nepal (click to enlarge)
Celebrating new years day with a feast in Nepal (click to enlarge)

Swayambhunath was like most important Hindu temples in Nepal. After ascending30 minutes of steps you see the large stupa blanketed with stark whitewash above which sits a golden cubical structure with the eyes of Buddha looking in all four directions. What makes Swayambhunath a little different is both its high location, and it’s alternative namesake of the monkey temple. Indeed there were baboons everywhere. Mainly in the search for food they could be seen as rather deft pickpockets to unsuspecting tourists.

Yes, okay I like singing bowls a lot

It was the antiquities market surrounding the temple that interested me thought. I had been there once before and spotted a shop that was dedicated to my new found obsession of singing bowls. Stephi and Cathy were not so enamored with the little decorative bowls but thanks to my skill of persuasion or possibly there boredom were now listening to the shop owner recite their purpose.

What is a singing bowl?

Nepalese singing bowls were in fact Tibetan, but even the Tibetan ones were made in Nepal due to the Chinese restrictions on Tibetan culture. They came in different sizes, and classes. Some were for music alone, others claimed healing powers due to the vibrations they gave out. I fell prey to a live demonstration and was subjected to a 2 foot brass colored singing bowl being hit like a gong and passed up and down my body. A mere inch away from touching me I felt it’s vibrations tingle through, a sort of sonic massage. One that became a little strange at the waist level and forced me to pull back.

Great view of Patan, Nepal (click to enlarge)
Great view of Patan, Nepal (click to enlarge)

With a little hand push from me Stephi had an up close experience with a vibrating bowl too. Her’s however was possibly a little too comically surreal though. Our good intentioned, or possibly sadistically bored, store owner placed the large massage bowl upside down on her head. As if wearing some strangely designed army helmet Stephi stood there, half her head submerged in a brass bowl balanced on her head, her fist directed at me. She was too polite of Nepalese tradition to tell the man to get lost, and so she continued to stand there as he proceeded to hit the bowl with a wooden stick to the sound of a loud bong. Stephi’s fists grew tighter as Cathy and I fought back the tears of laughter.

The daily grind in Kathmandu

This would be our source of amusement for the day. An evening around the gas heater, steaks and laughter. The electricity blackouts were a curse but also a bonding occasion. Without the rip off DVD’s we had little choice but to sit in candle light darkness and trade our day’s stories. It was an old tradition that was working on us without effort. We began grew to know each other quickly, we could read each others thoughts and moods on instinct.

Stephi and Kathy were stuck with volunteer jobs that had no work for them. Though Kathy should have been living in a monastery she found every excuse to stay at the guest house. Her German mentality of either 100% yes or 100% to most things in life meant she gave the monks little option to keep her there. Stephi on the other hand did go to work in the mornings, but would usually turn up in the afternoons with a an amused smile about no children today at the orphanage. Anna was older, and more serious about her college work. Yet it was as if this was her first escape from a studious lifestyle in years, and was caught between an all out party seeker and a depressed student on a deadline. Then there was me, the exiled traveler trapped in Nepal due to the snow in china.

Young Exiled Lama's in Nepal (click to enlarge)
Young Exiled Lama's in Nepal (click to enlarge)

The worst weather in in China

It would have been a weak excuse had the headlines on the news not been so daunting. First it was hundreds stranded at railways stations, then thousands and now tens of thousands. Snow storms were blanketing all parts of China. Roads were blocked and an upcoming new year festival threatened chaos.

It crossed my mind that is the group was not around would I still be there, waiting. Or would I have tested my luck, and gone for snow clad journey into China. I foraged information on the Internet. There were still travelers there, but many were obsessed with the weather story rather than telling if they could move around themselves. The Chinese new year, I had expected. And so my decision was to stay in Nepal until well after February 7th celebrations and allow time for the weather to pass.

Danilo, the Italian volunteer, rarely joined our nightly group. It was his second time in Nepal as a volunteer, and he was taking thing seriously. Still, his Italian good looks and friendly manner easily one the female contingent over when ever he appeared. His ability to cook good Italian food was also strong factor. I was the only male in a relatively young group consisting of international girls. It brought back memories of Morocco the ‘Harem’ of international wives we joked about then. It was a strange feeling, and I know the others knew it too. I had the experience and allure of the older lone male traveler.

Everyday Street Life in Kathmandu, Nepal (click to enlarge)
Everyday Street Life in Kathmandu, Nepal (click to enlarge)

Finding a home from home

While the girls were all on their real first trip overseas and held the vitality of youth and the interest in seeking answers. In most cases this relationship would only work for a short period considering the diversity of characters involved. But Sangita was our gel. She was our base at the Guest house that was now our home from home. At least in the case of the girls, a home from home. For me it was a safety net. A place that at least I was happy to stay in.

Some related links on this website that  you might like: (including a lot more photographs from Nepal)

Stories: Talika the twelve year old miner from Nepal

Stories: NGO’s in Nepal & Developing Countries

Resources: How to Guide – Nepal to Tibet Overland

Resources: How to hire a guide in Nepal

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