Fellow blogger Pooja from Stories from Europe grew up in Nepal, so we’ve joined forces to write about a city located close to Kathmandu, called Bhaktapur. The individual accounts are about the same city, Bhaktapur, but written from a perspective of 34 years apart.
What things had changed?
What comparisons can we draw? Let’s find out.
It is March in the year 1986.
It’s been two months since the doomed Space Shuttle Mission exploded and before another month is over, the reactor in Chernobyl, Russia will fail triggering a catastrophic nuclear accident that will change the world.
Meanwhile, in Australia, I am young, newly married and embarking on my first overseas trip. I am optimistic and filled with a mixture of excitement and nervous energy about my upcoming visit to Nepal. It would be my first time travelling overseas.
The First Overseas Trip
Why choose Nepal for my first overseas trip when every second Australian, at that time, was going to London or Bali?
24-year-old me was eager to experience a culture entirely different from the semi-pasteurized life I had in Australia, yet I still had many reservations about what ‘Overseas’ would be like.
My Arrival in Nepal – Kathmandu
When I arrived in Kathmandu, the capital of the Himalayan Kingdom, the wave of initial shock I felt at seeing the level of underdevelopment that existed in the Third-world, quickly gave way to a respect and appreciation for the Nepalese country, its eye-popping scenery, history and peace-loving people.
In 1986, I wrote in my travel diary, “the poverty of many Nepalese citizens contrasts sharply with a grand, ancient architecture, which is set against the backdrop of the staggering beauty of the Himalayas, mountains that could easily be mistaken for clouds.”
The contrast of our well appointed accommodation, the Yak ‘n Yeti Hotel, a former Palace in itself, with the scene a few steps away on the main street of the capital was stark.
In 1986, there was very few modern conveniences, (there was great bemusement and amazement when someone brought a small vacuum cleaner into the hotel lobby). The swimming pool was cleaned with a mop that consisted of a rag wrapped around the end of a wooden broom.
Thus, it was a day or so before ‘Westernized’ me could relax and enjoy the Nepalese culture, without feeling a sense of inequity on behalf of the people, and guilt for living my life in what would Nepalis would consider to be an extravagant and materialistic Western lifestyle, in comparison. (Even though my lifestyle was merely average by Australian standards.)
One street vendor summed it up.
“Where are you from? he asked, polishing the prayer wheel we were about to buy.
“Australia? Then you are rich!” he put forward.
I shook my head.
“No, not rich, definitely not rich,” I maintained.
“No?” he said, raising his eyebrow quizzically.
“How long did it take you to save the money to come here, then?’ he asked, “Six months, a year?”
I said, “Almost two years,” but he had made his point well. I was rich in comparison.
Bhaktapur – 1986
After a day or so in Kathmandu, my new husband and I were eager to explore further by driving around 10 kilometres east, passing through largely agricultural farms and the turnoff to China before arriving at Bhaktapur.
In 1986, 80% of the population of Bhaktapur were farming and the city was not yet on the main tourist trail. That was a shame as it was the original epicentre of Nepalese government from the 12th century until Kathmandu became the capital city under the Rana Kings.
The name Bhaktapur, means, “city of devotees,” my yellowing travel notes tell me, and if you enjoy traditional art, architecture and lifestyle, Bhaktapur gives you this in bucketloads. To visit Bhaktapur in 1986, it felt like a time warp back to the 14th centuries, Nepal’s Golden Age, when the Dynasty of Malla Kings ruled the region.
As well as seeing traditional Newari homes, Bhaktapur’s main square, ‘Durbar Square’, is filled with UNESCO heritage-listed Palaces and Pagoda-styled temples, adorned with highly crafted, intricate woodcarvings and statues that I felt were a privilege to see, given that Nepal was, for many years, closed to the outside world.
It isn’t widely known that the tiered Pagoda-style architecture, typically associated with the Orient, was first developed in Nepal, by a Nepalese architect who exported the concept very successfully to Asia.
Our Guide, Madhav, explained the history behind the architectural legacy left from the Malla Dynasty and their lengthy rule which preceded the more inward-looking Rana Kings, who closed off Nepal to foreigners.
Walking across Durbar Square we saw the masterpiece that is the Golden Gate, which comprises the main entrance to the old Royal Palace. Said to be, ‘the most richly moulded specimen of its kind in the world,’ the Golden Gate is intricately embellished with Garuda, the mythical griffin, Goddesses and other Hindu creatures. The gate leads to an inner courtyard containing a Royal Pool, or Water tank where a Hindu goddess, was believed to have her daily bath.
The Royal Palace itself, a structure adorned with fifty-five carved wooden windows, was built during the reign of the Malla King Bhupendra Malla, and finally completed in 1754.
Despite the Royal Palace remaining closed to the public as a result of the damage it sustained, during the 1934 earthquake, we feel now quite lucky to see it when we did, as the damage to these heritage structures from the 1934 earthquake had been repaired and the devastating 1990 earthquake was yet to happen. This is the palace as it appeared in 2013, (not my photo).
The Statue of King Bhupatindra Malla stands atop a pillar overlooking the square. The King is depicted in an act of worship and can be seen facing the Palace and away from the main square, as a mark of respect. Such a contrast to other statues in the West.
A few more steps away, Taumadhi square features a five-tiered pagoda built in the 1700s, with stepped plinths, said to have taken three generations to construct. The animal statues on the steps, guard both the temple and the resident Goddess. My photo is old and cloudy, but I am there standing on the right side at the top of the steps, talking to some young girls.
The girls in the photo gathered around me, holding my hands tightly and pleading, “one rupee.” Their fingers were so cold, and I worried that one little girl might actually be ill. One rupee is a pitiful amount of money and my heart went out to them, but our guide had warned us away from giving any of the children money. “If you give them money, it encourages begging,” he said. I did not want to offend.
From here we strolled along the quieter back alleys, where several Newari ladies dressed in traditional Sari, sat on mats on the ground, selling their crafts.
They sold silver filigree jewellery and trinkets, some inlaid with semi-precious stones as well as carved wooden boxes. There didn’t seem to be a lot of customers about that day. I purchased a small carved box and was given another small silver box in place of change, as the seller had no coins or notes to give me any change for the transaction. A kindly gesture and one that I hope did not leave her out of pocket.
Buddhist Art -Thangkas
We were privileged to witness the Buddhist monks painting scrolls in the traditional Buddhist art form, known as Thangkas. The monks paint versions with authentic gold leaf highlights, or a lesser alternative using gold paint, which was reflected in the price of each alternative.
I selected the following Thangka, brought it home from our trip, had it framed and it has been such a delight to me. All my family love it and I still have on the wall in my new home, 34 years later. It is a timeless piece that still fascinates me. There is always something new to see in the painting, even after 34 years.
Some of the figures depicted in the painting might, on closer inspection, be considered pornographic to an unknowing Western eye. We are grateful that our guide explained the true purpose of this traditional depiction. The erotic positions of the figures were intended to excite men and the male spirit, in the hopes of increasing their fertility, something vital to the population, where children are seen as a way of securing your financial future.
Perhaps it worked, as I never had problems conceiving children?
Our final stop in Bhaktapur, was a surprise invitation from our guide to drink coffee with him in a small Lounge, located atop one of the tiered Pagoda-like buildings, overlooking Taumadhi Square.
It was a unique experience to sit and contemplate the history of the centuries-old square where Kings had walked, where battles were fought, where ancient monuments were crafted and stone sculptures stood on guard, as a timeless testament to a creative and artistically rich culture.
Our Guide told us he met a girlfriend who lived in our home town and also how it was common for many Tour Guides to marry foreign tourists and live overseas. He insisted that he would prefer to stay in Nepal and hoped his girl would move over there. He asked us to go visit her when we went back home. I imagine he would have been disappointed to hear that she had no plans to return to Nepal.
Visiting Bhaktapur was a unique and highly satisfying experience I shall never forget and I thank Pooja from the blog: Stories from Europe for the opportunity to share these beautiful memories of my first overseas travel experience with you.
Bhaktapur – 2020
What things had changed since 1986?
To find out what has changed in Bhaktapur over the intervening years, visit Pooja’s blog post, and find out what life in present-day Bhaktapur is like.
What was your first Overseas travel experience like?
Where did you go? Was it to someone familiar or completely different?
I would be happy if you link back to #firsttripoverseas in the comments below.