After a well deserved post-trek beer, burger and maybe a few glasses of red wine, Hugo and I caught the first bus back to Kathmandu. The road from Pokhara to Kathmandu is in “good condition” by Nepali standards but it didn’t seem to limit the number of near death experiences we encountered.
For the first time in our travels we felt the need to “buckle up” except the bus we were on didn’t have seat belts. There’s absolutely no concept of road rules, designated sides of the roads or the lack of knowledge that overtaking at record speeds on a blind bend with a sheer drop to your left is just a wee bit dangerous. I’m absolutely dreading cycling this terrifying road on our way to India.
So the new plan is to buy a bike in Kathmandu and cycle to Varanasi in India in time for the celebration of Holi. It’s only 600 or so kilometres but we have less than two weeks to find a bike and make it there in time for the 23rd. “Easy” Hugo said.
Eager to get going, bike hunting was postponed for a day due to the Maha Shivaratri festival taking place. In celebration of God Shiva’s birthday, over a million people flock to the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu to pay their respects to one of the most important Hindu Gods. I joined the crowd alongside Hugo, Ryan my friend from All Hands Volunteers and Alessandro who we met trekking.
As if by miracle we managed to worm our way through the mile long queues into the temple and kept walking past the police, army and security guards. We bypassed the millions and kept walking only to be stopped when we tried to enter the temple itself, forbidden to “non-believers”.
Pashupatinath Temple is where cremations take place with burning bodies being left to drift along the river. The smell, smoke and sight was horrifying. It was strange to see worshippers bathe in the river filled with rubbish, human waste and dead bodies.
Children fished in the river he hope to find metal left on the dead. The stench was unreal. When we arrived in the morning the place was already heaving and I certainly witnessed some of the most shocking cultural normalities of my life.
Lord Shiva was burned so holy men cover themselves in ash out of respect. Marijuana is legalised for one day to celebrate with everyone passing pipes around and almost every drink sold was the kind you don’t want too much of.
Naked dancing takes place alongside men showcasing the weights they could lift with their penises. Nothing was hidden, not even the excitement of the hundreds of men watching and taking photos with their smart phones. Some were more interested in me mind, being the only woman watching the show. Men watching willies totally acceptable but a woman, WHOAH, I felt like a huge pervert.
The day was all about karma and half-dead bodies lay spread across the walkways with donations by their sides. It was horrifying to see and I never know whether giving will only fuel the act of begging as many are part of a larger network of professionals.
Friends of mine saw bodies being burnt but luckily I managed to miss all the cremations. There was plenty of fried Indian street food on sale which I just had to try. Incredibly tasty but I could feel my cholesterol rising with each bite. “Get used to it” the others said.
By 1pm we were exhausted so Hugo, Alessandro, Ryan and I headed back in to town. The good thing about Nepal is that everyone will let you use their loo for free, not like Vietnam where you have to pay! I’m always stopping for the loo and have encountered some rather unique loo spots. Today’s included one where I was forced to squeeze through a tiny hole at the back of a restaurant and ended up in the middle of a chicken abattoir with headless chickens running around and a man holding a knife. I was lost for words.
Maha Shivaratri is probably the most intense event I have visited and I was in bed by 9pm that evening as my mind tried to process what it had seen. Another cultural festival not to be missed.
*big thanks to my brother Hugo for some of the pictures in this post*