Kathmandu.  Long a backpackers’ haven, the celebrated destination of a Bob Seger song and the place where we, along with Nashville friends Michael and Kelly, spent a fantastic few days.
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Among the highlights were a walk around the kora with Buddhist pilgrims at the Bodhnath Temple, time spent with the gaggle of monkeys at the Swayambunath Stupa (one of Kathmandu’s most important Buddhist shrines) and a visit to the magnificent Sweta Machhendranath Temple, which we stumbled upon during our Derek-led walking tour the of the city (hey, they don’t call him “Map Boy” for nothing…).  The latter, which is revered by Buddhists and Hindus alike, boasted far, far more pigeons than people and provided a great opportunity for us to watch worshippers making offerings.
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We were also lucky to get a quick glimpse of Kathmandu’s own living goddess (although we were forbidden to take pictures of her–the one here was pilfered from a postcard).  The young goddess, known as the Kumari, is believed to be the bodily incarnation of the goddess Taleju.  In order to be chosen as the Kumari, she had to meet a staggering number of requirements designed to ensure that she was, in fact, the goddess’s reincarnation.  Among many other necessities, she had to be a Buddhist girl from a certain caste who has, and I quote, “a neck like a conch shell,” “a body like a banyan tree” and “eyelashes like a cow.”  Hmmm.

For Derek and me, Kathmandu was this trip’s first real taste of the colorful chaos of a South Asian city.  After China, with its cool temperatures and often-gray atmosphere, the city was a burst of warmth and life.  We happily wandered the city’s crazy streets and grew adept at avoiding both tiger balm sellers and wayward scooters.
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Better yet, all four of us were delighted (and surprised) to find that the talented chef at the Kathmandu Crowne Plaza could produce a tasty approximation of a Thanksgiving dinner with only a few hours’ notice.  We had all the fixin’s–from mashed potatoes to pumpkin pie–and we’re still puzzling over how he brought forth such a wonderful turkey without the full day of cooking that such a task usually takes us.
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Kathmandu cab drivers and hoteliers alike lamented to us about the drastic reduction in tourism that their part of the world has felt in recent years.  Due at least in part to Nepal’s precarious political situation–unrest has rocked the country for over a decade as the Maoists in rural Nepal struggle against the nation’s monarchy and its chosen political system; the situation famously worsened in 2001 when Prince Dipendra, in a rage purportedly sparked by his parents’ refusal to accept his chosen wife, murdered his father, the king, and many other family members–it appears on many state departments’ “exercise caution” lists.  For travelers who do find their way to Kathmandu, these difficult circumstances ironically mean reduced prices and a wide choice of available hotel rooms.  For Kathmandu residents, however, they translate into a staggering unemployment/underemployment rate–nearly 50%–and fervent hopes that a political solution lies just on the horizon.