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By Jane Cowin in Dhaka, reprinted with author's kind permission from The Hardship Post, No. 421, 30 Aug 99.

It was our fourth visit to Nepal so I knew exactly what I did and didn't want to do. I wanted to buy another pashamina and I didn't want to travel miles in the pouring rain to gaze at large expanses of cloud where mountains should be.

This was a working trip for my husband Tom so traveling far out of the valley was prohibited. I could have gone on my own but there was a tendency to sulkiness when this was suggested.

So that ruled out the Silent Safari, run by Col. Hikmat Bisht, former hunter, retired military attache, family man, who has a tented camp pitched next to a waterhole in deep jungle. It is situated in the far west of the country in the Sukla Panta Wildlife Reserve. I gather you fly in to Mahendranager where Silent Safari picks you up. You can book at tel Kathmandu 01/227236. It's not cheap but there are tigers.

So - I wasn't doing that. I also wasn't going down to Chitwan, to Pokhara, Nagarkot (even though the Farmhouse is delightful), or to Dhulikhel. The monsoon is a very wet time of the year. Banks of cloud. Mud everywhere. Slippy, slidey alleys. Soggy cows. Everyone was wearing big basket hats to keep the rain out and all the shops sold umbrellas.

So I decided to do the cultural bit, dodging the rain in Kathmandu and around, trying to learn something about the confusing religions, bloody history and convoluted politics of the place. I found some very strange places and stumbled upon some odd stories.

Do you know the importance of the Kathmandu Kumari? A pre-pubescent girl, a living goddess, not allowed to walk on the earth, who lives in isolated grandeur as a re-incarnation of the fearsome goddess Durga. She reigns until she sheds blood, not necessarily menstrual; a scratch will do. She is then retired on a small stipend from the government and a selection procedure for a new Kumari is instigated. It is the Kumari who bestows the tika on the forehead of the king who will reign for the following year.

She is really important but at the moment there is a terrible scandal as they don't have one, or rather they have an old one who won't go away. The old Kumari, said to be in her forties, swears blind that she has never shed blood and surprisingly a lot of people believe her. She has been officiallv retired but holds court in suburban Kathmandu and continues to wield much influence.

To complicate matters they have no contenders for the post. It appears that once retired an ex-Kumari is unable to marry as the men are too terrified; as her education has been minimal she cannot work and as she is used to luxury most girls find it impossible to adjust to normal life. To most Nepali parents this doesn't look too good, so they will not put heir daughters forward. Result - a crisis. I learnt all this at the Kumari Chowk in Durbar Square in Kathmandu. I was allowed in as there was no Kumari in residence. The carvings are exquisite.

Did you know that round the back of the Swayambhu temple complex to the west of Thamel is a little-visited, unprepossessing building called the Shantipur? 1500 years ago a holy man sealed himself into the cellars to contemplate. He is meant to have achieved a mystic state of immortality and IS STILL THERE.

In 1658 a very bold king called Pratap Malla (very important Kathmandu people the Mallas) entered the chamber to ask for help for the valley, as they were suffering from a drought. He had to pass monster bats, ghosts, and flesh-eating spirits. He had to pacify snakes with milk so they didn't chase and bind him. He saw the holy man and was rewarded with a rain-making emblem. It worked. What a hero! I bet Tony Blair wouldn't do all that. Ken Livingstone might though.

Anyway - I went inside and saw frescoes and poked around for secret doors, or hidden flagstones, and made stupid whoo-hoo noises and thoroughly frightened and enjoyed myself.

Near the Swayambhu I also visited the Balaju water gardens, built for the Malla princesses. A surprise as it is in the middle of the Balaju industrial estate. It's a day out sort of place for the teeming in Kathmandu. Picnics, strolling, flirting - that sort of thing. It has a rather nice bathing tank with 22 stone spouts and there is a Sleeping Vishnu, contemporaneous with the one at Boudhanilkantha. He is lying slightly submerged in a rather grubby pool of to one side of the gardens. There is also a disturbing depiction of a smallpox goddess.

Somewhat disappointed by the gardens I found a wonderful restaurant. It's hidden up an obscure lane off the main road to Balaju. It's signposted by distinctive green and yellow signs and is called K.C.s Consequences. Great views, in a car repair yard with car-part based sculptures and stuff. Go. Go.

Did you know that the best way to see the inside of a Rana palace (the Rana are another very important family in Kathmandu) is to visit the Kaiser Library? It is located in the Ministry of Education and Culture on the corner of Tredevi Marg and the Kantipath.

This library (open 10-5pm Mon to Fri) was the personal library of Field Marshall Kaiser Shamsur Rana (1891-1964) and has beautiful tiled ceilings, sweeping staircases, stuffed tigers, a suit of armour, fascinating photographs of the Field Marshall with just about everybody who was anybody at the time and the most glorious collection of books I've seen for a long time. More than slightly foxed, very musty, some still uncut, but a bibliophile's heaven. There is a stunningly bound edition of a storybook by the Queen of Romania with original illustrations by, of all people, Mabel Lucy Atwell. Remember her? There are complete collections of most of the books written about the area from about 1900 to about 1950.

There are also the ramblings of most of the British Residents. Poor men, they seem to have had nothing to do except go to one meeting each year with the king. Most appeared to have retreated to their gardens to grow rhododendrons, with mixed success. They worried about mosquitoes a lot too, but as the Residence appears to have been placed on the swampiest bit of the valley I'm not surprised.

I loved the library and spent a happy afternoon curled up on a cushioned window seat reading about poor Queen Marie Louise of Spain, niece of the Sun-King, who died of poison, allegedly, childless and forlorn in 1689.

Did you know that the Patan museum must be one of the most beautiful and informative museums in the world? It also has a gorgeous cafe with really good food set in the palace gardens. The cafe smelt of lemongrass (they spray to keep the flies away), is all shady trees, curving brick walls and secluded corners. Wonderful for assignations. Just a thought. The Austrians have helped do the museum and it is very stylish. There are superb examples of carving, statuary, and artifacts and all is explained very clearly. Give yourself a lot of time here. Also you don't have to buy an entry ticket to use the cafe.

Did you know that south-east of Durbar Square in Patan is a very rococo structure that tumbled down in the 1934 earthquake and has been put back in a Humpty-Dumpty manner, all jumbled and odd corners? It is the Mahabuddha and is constructed of terracotta tiles, each one bearing the Buddha's image and is based on the Mahabodhi Temple of Bodhygaya in India, where the builder went to meditate for a number of years in the 17th century. It is tightly hemmed in by houses and alleys and appears to have been twisted to fit the space available. On the way here it is possible to spend hours watching Patan's famous metalworkers doing their stuff in dark, little workshops surrounded by babies, ducks and old men. Everybody was very friendly and welcoming and long explanations on what and how were given of which I understood nothing. It didn't seem to matter.

Did you know that for the price of an entry ticket to the Tribhuwan Museum in the Hanuman Dhoka (the old royal palace) it is possible to get completely and utterly lost within dark, dusty, narrow corridors, confusing staircases and mysterious shrouded rooms and to be escorted outside again by a military guard. You'll never believe this but *I* found a limping dwarf who was also lost and we were thrown out together. Magic. Very Salman Rushdie. I had to stifle giggles in the museum. You can see the King's aquarium (in the hobbies section) but no water, no fish, only a few crumbling rocks and desiccated pieces of coral. There is the King's bicycle (monogrammed), the tigers he killed, the things he killed them with, his record-player and a very small bed. There are also jewel-studded baby clothes (poor mite) and elephant clothes of wondrous and gorgeous proportions. There was nobody there. Just dust and the ghostly imaginings of silken saris whisking around corners ahead of me.

Did you know that it is perfectly possible to eat a large hotel breakfast at 9am, a chocolate cake about 11am, chicken liver pate, salad and lemon mousse at 1:30pm, a quick ham sandwich at 4pm and still go out to Simply Shutters in the evening with one's husband and consume Norwegian salmon and walnut pie? It is not easy, I grant you, but it can be done. In fact after a little training it can be repeated.

We had super meals at Simply Shutters and Chez Caroline in Babar Mahal Revisited. This is an old Rana palace that has been renovated by the French and has clothes shops (only one more pashmina, Tom, I promise), antiquey things, music, and courtyards. All very civilised. We ate well at Kilroy's in Thamel. It is owned by an Irish chef who worked for Anton Mosimann. We had delicious fishcakes, Guinness and beef stew, bread and butter pudding (Mosimann's) and a Cappuccino ice-creamy thing to die for. We ate quails and chocolate bombe at The Chimney in the Yak and Yeti, a lovely restaurant. The wine was a bit dickey though.

We stayed at the Annapurna. It's OK but not brilliant, although the beds are really comfortable, which is an unusual thing in Nepal. I bought a small Newari house (model of), lots of books from the Pilgrim's bookshop and oh - yes - just one more pashmina. 


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