Friday, July 24, 2015

The Kathmandu Valley: Beautiful serene Changunarayan

Our second day in Nepal saw us meeting up with Som Tamang manager of Volunteer in Nepal.  I was introduced to his work through the facebook page "Friends of Himalayan Children".  

Som has been doing some remarkable things in the Everest region of Nepal and Steve (one of the builders who came with me on this trip) was keen to travel to his village to volunteer for a week before returning to New Zealand. As tempting as this sounds to me (especially the opportunity to teach in the school there), the reason I came to Nepal was to see if there was any way to assist in Changunarayan; people had donated $1000 USD and I was very keen to see this go to the village.  That said; where there is a need - how can you say no? It is a question that I had already faced in Thamel this morning where street peddlers begged me to buy something off them to bring good luck. Such meagre amounts - how could I say no ... but say it you must; it is very hard.  It is a question I am sure I will find myself asking time and time again.

Amanda Summers who operates the Starview Guesthouse in Changunrayan met us in Kathmandu to take us back to the village, which lies very close to Kathmandu city in the Kathmandu valley.  It was so wonderful to see this energetic, innovative and lovely lady - it felt so surreal; hugging hello in a cafe in Thamel ... I felt like I was in a time warp.
As we drove through the city, she pointed out various places that were badly damaged from the earthquakes, but it appeared it was 'business as usual'.  The city is very condensed as people live in multi-storied houses, building one floor at a time as they can afford to, so there is an interesting architectural style, with some of the bigger homes being upwards of three floors! It is easy to see why the ones that were not robustly constructed, just crumbled with the magnitude of quakes. 

The other aspect I really enjoyed about the buildings that I noticed as we drove through, was the choice of colour scheme - it is not unusual to see pink houses, duck-egg blue, aqua green; they certainly are generous with their colours and I just love that about Nepal.
As we continued to drive towards Changunarayan we drove through the ancient city of Bhaktapur which suffered immense damage in the quakes. It was the first real hint of the major devastation - Kathmandu certainly being struck very badly in places, but for the most part it appeared from what I saw that much of the city was not too badly affected.
The Kathmandu Valley began to open wider and revealed luminous lush green country side, with villages dotting the hills as far as the eye could see and as the valley is surrounded by very large hills (by New Zealand standards), it is easy to see why people come to Nepal to trek. 
The ride to Changu was everything I expected - bumpy narrow rutted roads; cows, dogs, people carrying large loads on their backs - all on the streets along with everyone else, buses, cars tooting, traffic jams, and the heat of the day growing steadily. It is rainy season - monsoon - so I knew we would be feeling slightly uncomfortable in the heat and humidity having come from a harsh New Zealand winter!  The very short distance from Kathmandu to Changunarayan took a long time - much more than it should given the distance - but (as they say) this is Nepal!

 The drive up towards Changu brought with it a slight temperature drop  that was most welcome as we sat crammed together with our luggage and sweaty bodies.
I had done so much research on the village of Changunarayan, that as we ascended, I felt as if I had been there before.  The view expanded before us and soon enough we were winding our way through tiny narrow streets made from stone to stop at a far corner of Changu where Amanda's guest house is located. It literally took my breath away. I remember Amanda saying once in one of her blogs how she came to Nepal; saw the Himalaya's and felt like she had come home.  I felt so incredibly fortunate to be standing here (a village I had even dreamed about), a village that is beautiful beyond belief - and I too, felt at "home".

The guesthouse is simply stunning (check out the link here: It survived the quakes being of newer more modern construction than many of the homes in the village.  It has the best view in the world - sweeping over the Kathmandu valley with incredible views of Kathmandu which lights up the sky at night like Christmas lights, and on a clear day will treat guests to views of the Himalaya's - if they decide to reveal themselves. 

 The rooms are gorgeous and mine has a generous sized bathroom with (thankfully) a western-style toilet (not that the Nepali toilet is a problem - but I know what I prefer).

Currently Amanda has two other guests helping her with various aspects of Changu's journey back to full health after the quakes; Livio (from Italy) and Chris from USA. Both these guys and Amanda were incredibly welcoming and eager to be involved with what we were hoping to do. Chris took us for a walk around the village and we settled into a nice relaxing evening of dining and chatter. 
I woke again at 5 the next morning and climbed up to the roof to welcome the day - what a way to start the day - it is almost as if I could imagine time standing still; it was the most peaceful start to a day I have had in a long long time. 

After a while men gathered by the tree and stood overlooking the valley doing stretches, exercises, jogging on the spot, prayers to Vishnu around the tree - all very animated and congenial. After a while they wandered off. This was a pretty cool start to their day too I thought.
 I decided to take a walk and headed off through the village. Women were busily going about their daily chores - collecting water from a community tap being a main one. I had brought with me water filters to enable drinking without boiling water, and I was excited to see a tap in action. Women gathered around it, washing themselves; collecting water or doing laundry.

As I wandered further - men gathered in groups, drinking coffee perhaps or maybe tea, smoking and chatting loudly. 
Chickens, ducks and goats wandered and dogs were starting to stir. There are many stray dogs in Changu and they attach themselves to people in the vain hope of receiving a tit-bit or two; consequently they are skinny and flea-ridden. The Nepali throw rocks at them so they are actually quite scared of people - I guess a lifetime of having to dodge rocks makes you pretty wary. I just felt sorry for them - I'm a dog person!

I ended up wandering down the hill through prayer flags and thick green vegetation, houses and men wandering upwards with tools to start their day in Changu perhaps at the temple on the hilltop clearing rubble and helping with the restoration there. I thought about the difference to men in New Zealand going off to work - sitting in their cars, fighting traffic, stressing over car-parks, trying not to be late for work - doing it for 'the man"; here the men are maybe working, maybe not - perhaps a farmer, perhaps not.  Life is simple here; simple.

 As I walked, small children began showing their faces and people stopped to stare - a smile never ever far away. A "namaste" always gets a big smile in response and an eager "namaste" back; I couldn't believe how beautiful the village and people's were - such a world away from where I had come.

The main reason we came to Nepal as a group, was to offer some assistance to people in Changunarayan who may require it.  On my walk I saw a lot of devastation in the village ; the temple being very badly damaged - a real blow to this wee community as in the busy season it would have seen 300 plus visitors a day, with obvious spin-offs for the villagers who operated small cottage-style business.  Now they would be lucky to sell anything to a tourist, as basically there wasn't any.  

The temple grounds are now open and tourists actually can see the restoration in progress - in MY mind this would/could be a great draw-card for this village; to watch a restoration in progress.  There are lovely traditional crafts here - Thangka painting and mask carving being two main ones; with a school devoted to training up young Thangka painters and also giving lessons to anyone willing to spend the time.  The Thangka is a fascinating piece of Buddhist artwork with an incredible history and meaning, and the store in Changunarayan is testiment to that, with artists painting patiently and steadily sometimes for up to two months on a single artwork (check this weblink out for more detail on Thangka painting:

Sam, Steve and I had a discussion with Amanda about checking out the situation in Changu so that we could see what materials we would need to buy for repairs.  In my long walk I had certainly seen many tin shed style constructions which had replaced destroyed homes; I had seen many beautifully carved ancient homes with tarps over gaping wounds but people still living inside; and I had seen some very crude constructions that I would not even put my dog in let alone expect a human-being to exist in it. It was heart-breaking. 

 The main street itself of Changu was apparently slowly rebuilding, with people working together to remove rubble and get it looking more appealing; however the amount of litter lying around was really disturbing; but then - "this is Nepal".

 We walked around several houses and chatted to the locals, attempting to understand their broken English with our hand gestures - it is always amazing how in the end people figure out what is trying to be communicated.  
Steve decided that all of the shelters were perfectly ok; with perhaps only an elderly childless couple possibly requiring some insulation for the winter. It can get cold here in Changunarayan and the priority now is to have people warm and well once winter strikes towards the end of the year, as it may be some time before the Nepalese Government lift the ban on rebuilding homes.  

I was not so convinced - again it amazes me what people are prepared to live in. One elderly man had been living in a tin shed for five years - with his large brick (and now broken) home sitting a little up the hill from his hut - but he had not been living in it at the time of the quake! 

Some roofs leaked and some homes were very drafty - an issue during monsoon yes; but what about when winter comes and it is zero degrees outside? I decided however, I wanted to help the elderly childless couple and will purchase insulation and vinyl for their home if they want it ( I will write a blog on my thoughts about potential conflicts when volunteers come in and "rescue" countries after disasters); and I want to spend some time working along side the people shifting rubble - I really like this village; this is why I came here. I would like to see it return to its old self and be able to attract more tourists - the people here need this (people everywhere in Nepal need something!), but in this village tourism for some, is the main income earner for a family.  Just imagine if we took the gondola from Queenstown and all the other attractions there - it doesn't matter what scale the tourism is on, there is always going to be someone affected if the tap shuts off.

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