***PART OF THIS POST CONTAINS GRAPHIC IMAGES OF ANIMAL SLAUGHTER***
After a heavy night of partying we were up at the crack of dawn to head back to Kathmandu via the world most dangerous runway.
We had a less than thorough search of our bags (I wouldn’t want to rummage through a whole load of stinky bags either), we said goodbye to our porters and to Dawa who was heading back up the mountain the next day and we were on the first flight out.
They wound up the propellers, the plane rattled its way down the short slope and we were off. I said farewell to the Himalays and silently hoped I would see them again one day.
Back in Kathmandu we headed straight for the showers and finally got clean, I removed the dreads from my hair and scrubbed off my itchy dead skin. I felt good, with the exception of my feet which were in agony. They were so swollen, seriously itchy, numb yet on fire, the tips of my toes were too painful to touch and it felt like my feet were about to burst through my skin. I dosed up on vitamin I and developed a method of walking with my toes lifted up so they didn’t touch my shoes or the ground – a habit that I have since found difficult to break! But I wasn’t going to let that stop me exploring Kathmandu over the next few days.
Nepal was hit by earthquakes in April and May 2015 and the number of tourists have dropped significantly, so I wanted to see for myself what kind of state it was in. While the Nepalese people were trying to rebuild their lives following the earthquakes they had now had another problem to contend with – the fuel crisis.
It went a little something like this – India had a problem with the new Nepalese constitution, blocked the borders and restricted supply trucks from crossing into Nepal. Nepal is a landlocked country so relies on imported goods, it asked Bangladesh for help but they still have to transport through India and China couldn’t help because of the damage to the roads from the earthquakes. As travellers it didn’t affect us too much. Some airlines reduced their flights, a few restaurants were closed or served restricted menus and taxi fares were more expensive than they would usually have been. But the fuel crisis had a huge impact on local people, schools closed, businesses closed – people were unable to operate cookers or power appliances, they had a shortage of basic supplies and medicines, fuel was being sold on the black market at high prices and it was mixed with other things making it ‘dirty’ fuel and bad for the engines of their vehicles. But, people made do in the way they have to in these situations.
We began with a trip to the Boudhanath stupa, we managed to find a couple of taxis and went on a heart pumping journey through the streets (and back streets) of Kathmandu. Avoiding the people, cows, motorbikes, cycles, trucks and other cars by the narrowest of margins. Our driver laughing at us every time we squealed, this is normal for him! He used his ‘horn’ a lot, which I think is the only requirement needed to pass a driving test in Nepal.
Although I had seen a few damaged walls and a few piles of rubble or bricks around, my first impressions were that the damage from the earthquake wasn’t that bad. That impression changed when we reached the Boudhanath Stupa.
Boudhanath is a UNESCO world heritage site and the stupa is one of the largest in the world. Built in the 5th century AD it is really really old. It is a place of pilgrimage and meditation for Tibetan Buddhists and local Nepalis as well as being one of the biggest tourist attractions in Nepal. I have been before, during my first trip to Nepal in 2012, three years on it looked very different. The whole top had collapsed. (There is a photo within my photo below that shows what it used to look like.)
The huge brick pillars collapsed during the earthquake and all the prayer flags have been taken down. They have put a lot of effort into cleaning it up, all the bricks are in neat piles and the area around the stupa is clean and tidy.
It was a shock to see it like this and I did feel an unexpected overwhelming sadness to see the destruction of such a magnificent place. Unlike some people (I will resist an angry rant) I never questioned the rise in entrance fee for tourists, I happily paid my £1.50 and looking back I should have donated more, this is the only way they are going to be able to restore the stupa.
Religious visitors to the stupa walk clockwise around the base 3 times or more, turning the prayer wheels and reciting the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns are all around…often found texting on their mobile phones, which I find quite amusing…
We spent the afternoon exploring Thamel and buying some Nepalese souvenirs. Thamel is the main tourist area of Kathmandu, it’s busy and quite an assault on the senses. There are lots of hazards to avoid, hanging electrical lines and broken pavements, but this is nothing to do with the earthquake, this is just part of Nepal’s ‘charm’.
People began to drift off home and I stayed on with my friends Jane and Suart to see what else Nepal had to offer.
We were there at the same time as the Dashain festival. Celebrated by Nepali Hindus, the 15 day festival is a celebration of good over evil. Days 8, 9 and 10 have the most significance and they just happened to be the days we were in Kathmandu.
Vishvakarman – the god of creation – is worshipped and they believe all things that provide them with a living should be worshipped and blessed. Offerings of food are made to their shops and their vehicles. Cars and bikes are worshipped to prevent accidents in the coming year.
We chatted with the owners of our hotel and found out that this was the biggest day of the festival, a lot of shops and restaurants would be closed as people would be with their families. We google mapped out way down through Thamel to Durba Square, also a UNESCO world heritage site which dates back to the 16th century. A few little shops were open.
When we arrived at Durbar square we discovered two things. This was where all the people were! And we really began to see the effect of the earthquakes. Most of the temples propped up with basic scaffolding.
As we wondered around the square the people captured my eye…
Just as I was occupying myself taking pictures of pigeons…
…I became aware of a commotion behind me. The Royal Kumari was being moved from one temple to another (which is one of the only times of the year she is allowed to leave her temple) and she isn’t supposed to be photographed (oops).
The Kumari (living goddess) is an incarnation of the divine goddess and is worshipped by Nepali Hindus and Buddhists. She has to undergo a rigorous selection process, having to meet requirements that include – eyelashes like a cow, thighs like a deer, chest like a lion, voice soft and clear as a duck’s, black hair and eyes and a set of 20 teeth. She must spend the 9th night of the Dashain festival in a temple, lit only by candle light, with the severed heads of the animals slaughtered that day around her (although there is some debate to the truth of this). She must show no fear. The current Kumari did this when she was 4 years old. Now she is 9 and she will remain in her role until significant blood loss causes the goddess to leave her body, either through menstruation or illness or injury, then a new Kumari must be found.
This is the inside of the temple where the Kumari lives, she was expected to appear at the window and people were queued up waiting to see her. We didn’t wait around.
Now, about the animal slaughter… unknown to us at the time, this is the day the goats and buffaloes are sacrificed, the blood is offered to the goddess and the meat is eaten as divine meat.
We became aware something might be going on when we saw a man in an unusual blood stained outfit and large numbers of goats and buffalo being taken off trucks.
**GRAPHIC SCENES OF ANIMAL SLAUGHTER FROM THIS POINT. DO NOT READ ON IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO SEE THEM***
We noticed a large crowd of people and went over to investigate. I made my way to the top of the temple to try and get a look. I heard a loud crack, a thud and saw a lot of blood.
As the people dispersed, the spectacle over, it became clear what those noises were…the crack of the axe on the chopping block, the thud of the animals head.
I wasn’t sure what to think, I certainly wasn’t expecting that to happen right in front of me. I’ve never seen an animal killed in real life, let alone have its head completely removed from its body. But I eat meat, and I enjoy eating meat so I should be able to deal with an animal being slaughtered. I was in a state of morbid fascination. I would like to think that if it came down to it I would be able to kill an animal to survive, but unless there is some kind of zombie apocalypse, the world of convenience I live in makes that pretty unlikely – which I’m grateful for.
I hung around for a while, my fascination extending past the morbid and into the lives of other people in other cultures. I wanted to observe what they did and try to understand why they did it. The children were not afraid to touch the dead animal, helping to push the blood out of the hole where it’s head should have been. The smell of the blood was starting to make my stomach turn.
It seems as though all the slaughter was carried out at the same time, as we wandered around there were signs of dead animal all around.
Yeah, it seems kinda gross but actually the slaughter seemed to have been carried out quickly and cleanly and with minimum stress to the animals. We went to see the Kumari’s house and by the time we came back the animals had been cleared away and little blood remained. A couple of people were skinning one of the Buffaloes, which I actually found more distressing to see than the kill!
The festivities continued, the locals queued to get into temples and we made our way back through Thamel to our hotel, we didn’t use the map, we ducked down little side streets and hoped we were heading in the right general direction. It’s great to get off the main tourist strip once in a while, it gives you a better understanding of the city. We passed some shops (and a butchers) that the locals would go to…
We saw hundreds, OK maybe it just felt like hundreds, of small temples, all of them covered in Tika paste, flowers and food offerings.
There are a lot of stray dogs in Nepal, in varying states of health. It is sometimes difficult to see, but you have to push it out of your mind otherwise you would drive yourself crazy.
When you walk down the back streets you start to see more of how the earthquake has really affected Kathmandu…
The Nepalese people really are still trying to rebuild their lives and their city. Tourism will help them do that. They have done a great job in tidying up the tourist areas and they are so welcoming and accommodating. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world but one of the richest in culture and history. If you haven’t been it should definitely be on your list of places you want to go.