I’ve driven along some pretty terrifying roads the past few years. My heart rate has gone through the roof while whizzing through late night weekend traffic in Athens. I’ve woven through potholes on a motorbike in the rural hills of Lombok in Indonesia. And I’ve sucked in my breath and willed both myself and the car I’m in thinner when winter descends upon Aomori and the roads shrink down to bare single lanes, flanked by snowdrifts that are at least a meter tall. And then there’s the mountain road between Pokhara and Kathmandu. It definitely does not seem wide enough to accommodate two cars, especially with the huge tour buses and trucks that alternately trundle and race their way along the road. Three feet to the left, and we’d have plunged to a fiery death on the rocks and fields below.
That’s not to say that it wasn’t a beautiful drive. India was magical, but Nepal is in a league of its own when it comes to natural beauty. Sometimes we’d catch glimpses of the snow-capped mountains, and sometimes our view would be entirely made up of the terraced gardens of the homes that clung to the sides of the hills. Nepal’s an example of a place around which humanity has shaped itself, rather than modifying nature or shaping it to mankind’s needs. Despite the winding roads and terraced farmland, you still get a sense that Nepal has stayed very much the same – at least, naturally speaking – through the years.
Whereas Pokhara sort of just felt like a rather large town, Kathmandu is a proper city. And just hearing the name conjures up mystical images of dreadlocked saddhus with faces painted in orange and yellow, glittering golden stupas, and the incredible Himalayan Mountains. Kathmandu definitely has all of those things…and more. Part of that mystery stems from Kathmandu’s location: it’s surrounded by mountains on all sides and, with an elevation of approximately 1400 meters (4600 feet), it’s one of the highest capital cities in the world.
Before entering the proper limits of Kathmandu, we stopped just west of the city at Swayambhunath, a stupa that is one of the most important religious sites for Buddhism. From Swayambhunath, you see just how vast Kathmandu is. It may only have just over half a million people, but it’s the fastest growing capital in the world…and when you see the expanse of the city stretching out between the surrounding mountains, that’s a claim you can easily believe.
Swayambhunath is one of those landmarks that contributes to the mysticism surrounding Kathmandu. It perches high on a hill, and to reach the main pagoda, you have to climb more than three hundred stairs. A glittering gold spire rises out of the massive white dome at its base, and the entire complex is threaded through with strings of fluttering lungta.
On each of the four sides of the spire, a pair of painted eyes, meant to symbolize the all-seeing omnipotence of God, surveys the city below. Below the eyes there’s a swirl that could be a nose, if you squinted hard enough and used your imagination. In actuality, it’s a stylized version of the number one in the Nepalese alphabet, and it represents that there is only one true path to enlightenment: through Buddha and his teachings.
Around the stupa, incense cloys the air and statues wrought in iron and carved from stone stand guard. Around the stupa, it certainly does not feel like the 21st century. (But if you walk twenty meters towards the gift shop area, that tranquil reverie is sadly shattered.)
Swayambhunath has another name: the Monkey Temple. And it’s an apt title. Wild monkeys are everywhere within the complex. They balance on top of the stupa, scamper along the railings of the upper platform, and generally just make you nervous. They are, after all, wild. They may be used to humans, but that doesn’t mean that they’re at all domesticated. You try to keep your eye on any in your immediate vicinity, only to realize that you’re basically surrounded. If the monkeys of continental Asia decided to form an uprising, I’d be willing to bet that headquarters would be at Swayambhunath.