Kathmandu: Mad Max, Smog, and Cremations

I spent my first day in Nepal sightseeing in Kathmandu. Upon landing, I was immediately greeted by Prem, a friend of my father’s (because everyone’s parents casually have pals all over the world, right?)

At first glance, Kathmandu seemed to have this dream-like haze about it, which I quickly realized was just smog.

I was fortunate enough to have Prem guiding me around the city, because I don’t think I could have managed any other mode of transportation without the stress level of Winona Ryder in every scene of Stranger Things.

The roads are packed with vehicles, motorbikes, pedestrians, and a few cows, homemade tractors and metal carts mixed in just to spice things up a bit. There really aren’t lanes, traffic lights, or pedestrian crosswalks, and respecting the direction of traffic feels optional.

It’s kind of like the movie Mad Max, but with more vehicles. I don’t really remember what that movie was about, but there were cars and danger in it, so this analogy still works.

After a long day of checking out Kathmandu’s hot spots, including the Boudhanath Stupa (one of the largest Stupas in the world and also the coolest one I’ve ever seen), Prem took me to Pashupatinath, a sacred Hindu temple.

On our way there, he casually remarked, “Hopefully we can see a cremation today,” and proceeded to inform me that it takes three hours to fully burn a body. But only one hour if you do it the electric way.”

I wasn’t sure how to appropriately respond to this new information, so I awkwardly let out an, “okay, great!” as if I had ever seen a body cremated before.

This was my first time in a primarily Hindu country, and I was eager to learn more about the religion. I got familiar with Buddhism while traveling through Southeast Asia last summer, but my experience with South Asia and it’s customs is still new.

We proceeded to the temple where a few cremations were already well under way, and stopped to watch as Hindu priests prepared another funeral pyre, decorated with bright orange flowers.

I don’t know how to describe what it’s like to watch women wailing while a body burned, but I suppose tragically beautiful would be a good start. It smelled like sandalwood mixed with a scent I didn’t recognize, which made me a bit uneasy.

Nonetheless, I stood there and watched, because I had never seen anything like it. I left the temple with the goal of better understanding Hinduism and putting more of South Asia on my busket list.

Overall, I found the city fascinating in its own chaotic way. Kind of like a friend’s messy room. To an outsider, its hard to make sense of or find anything, but once you get to know it better, it’s quite charming.

Nonetheless, I think one day in Kathmandu was plenty for me. My sinuses and lungs would certainly agree.