Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What to do in Kathmandu?

Greetings from Kathmandu where I haven't seen even one "kat", nor for that matter hardly any dogs!  I hope the explanation doesn't lie in some exotic Nepalese cusine similar to that of their Chinese neigbors!  (but the Yak cheese here is great!)

Oman was exotic but Nepal is even more so.  How's this for exotic?

On Saturday afternoon my colleague and I spent several hours among Hindu mourners and ascetics in the Holy City of Pashupatinath observing several Hindu cremation ceremonies.  These take place daily along the Baghmadi River which is a tributary of the famous Ganges River of India.  Several fresh funeral pyres were lined up along the river and periodically, families arrived carrying a recently deceased relative all rolled up in plastic sheeting. After performing several rituals, they laid the body, wrapped in an ocre robe, onto a pyre. A male family member then circled the pyre three times and lit the pyre, starting near the head of the deceased.  After about 10 minutes, flames covered the pyre and smoke spread across the entire area.  And of course one couldn't help inhaling some of the smoke - a rather bizzare thought!  After the fire had fully consumed the body, the ashes were swept into the Baghmadi and slowly floated towards the Ganges.   Although it was all very surreal to me, the locals took it completely in stride.  Kids were even swimming in the river among the ashes. I saw one boy paddling in a casket which I was told was probably used to carry someone from a distant town to the cremation site.  People from nearby towns don't use caskets but only the yellow plastic sheeting.

Funeral pyre at Pashupati
Hindu ascetics at Pashupati

The ascetics, which probably included a few eunichs, were really an exotic lot, having spread ash and various color tones  over their faces and bodies.  They sustain themselves from alms and from donations from tourists who take their pictures.  They are outwardly friendly but completely otherworldly.  And I wouldn't be surprised if a little opium or other local narcotic didn't contribute to their state of mind.  As the Germans say "andere Laender, ander Sitten" -- other countries, other customs.  The world really does have great diversity!

 Pashupatinath was extremely interesting in its own right.  As a non-Hindu, I wasn't allowed to go into the temples but could walk through the streets and look into temples through the doorways.  Many pilgrims were present as were a few "holy cows."

Here are a couple of related links:

Over the weekend I visited two other UNESCO heritiage sites -- the ancient Hindu temple city of Bhaktapur ( and the large Buddhist Stupa of Bhudanat (( which is very close to my hotel. In the foregoing link, note the eyes staring down from all angles of the Stupa as well as from surrounding pinnacles and posts. These eyes are one of Nepals most endearing symbols and are common on hats, t-shirts, bumper stickers, etc.

Hindue temple in Bhaktapur

Street scene in Bhaktapur

Bhoudanat Stupa in festive mode
Buddhist Monks at Bohudanat Stupa

Here is an interesing post on the history/legend of BoudhaNath -- please note: there are many different English spellings from the Nepalese transliteration -- (

A few more general comments on Nepal:  it is one of the poorest countries in Asia and because it was never colonized inherited very little infrastructure.  Electricity goes out several times a day and all of Kathmandu's petroleum is brought in from India on large tanker trucks which must navigate the horrible Nepalese roads.  It is very isolated and has few resources.  The major source of income is the tourists that come to trek in the Himalayas or to climb Mt. Everest.  (I didn't get very close to the Himalayas during my time here but I could see the snow-capped peaks in the distance which are truly impressive).

I'm supposed to be traveling to Phnom Penh Cambodia via Bangkok on Thanksgiving Day but it looks like I may be stuck in Kathmandu a while longer. You may have heard that the Bangkok Airport has been closed due to major political demonstrations.  If I am unable to leave tomorrow I'll be looking for alternative ways out which won't be easy from this isolated country.  I may have to bypass Cambodia completely and fly to Jakarta via Hong Kong which would be my last stop before returning to the U.S.

Happy Thanksgiving and have lots of turkey for me.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

a Q without a U;

 Here's a little trivia for you:  What is the only word in the dictionary that starts with the letter "Q" and is not followed by a "u."  Well,  of course, it's Qatar -- pronounced KA-tahr --  an Arab emirate on a small peninsula jutting out into the Persian Gulf from the North side of Saudi Arabia (  I'm currently in the Qatari capital of Doha where I'll be until Friday.  Following are a few tidbits of information on Qatar, which may be  more than you want to know.

The current Emir, and one of the richest men in the world, is his Highness Shaikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani who made news in the US by donating 100 Million Dollars to help New Orleans recover after Hurricane Katrina (  According to wikipedia, Qatar has the 4th highest per capita GDP in the world, based on oil in part, but more importantly on its tremendous reserves of natural gas (

Although I've only been in Doha a day and a half, my impressions are that the city is trying very hard to compete with nearby Dubai in terms of prominence and prestige in the Gulf. There is certainly a lot of construction and opulence here but nothing close to what I've seen in Dubai.  However one area where Doha may have outdone Dubai is in the area of Islamic art.  A new Islamic Art museum, designed by I. M. Pei, and which is being heralded as one of most important Islamic Art museums in the world has just been completed.  Unfortunately I won't be able to see it as it won't open its doors to the public until next week when I'll be gone.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Oman: right out of 1001 Arabian Nights

Where am I?  - Muscat in the Sultanate of Oman

Who's in charge?  Sultan Qabos bin Said al Said (  By Middle Eastern standards, he's a very enlightened ruler who has had great success in developing the country despite much lower oil revenues than the nearby UAE and Saudi Arabia.  He has been divorced twice, doesn't have an heir, loves Western classical music and lives a very secretive life.  Expats and Wikipedia suggest he is gay; his subjects deny it.  He is currently building one of the largest opera houses in the Middle East.

Where am I staying: Muscat Intercon --

What do I think?  It truly doesn't get much more exotic than Oman?  The Imams are now calling the faithful to prayer and I'm sure I've already seen Ali Baba, Sinbad, Aladdin, Scheherazadah and Ibin bin Saud roaming the streets or peering down from some of the many forts throughout the Sultanant. By Muslim standards, it is a very tolerant place -- one can get a drink after 6 in the hotel bar and there are several churches, although apparently no synagogues.

What have I been up to?  Working most of the time and spending the weekend (Thursday/Friday) touring and in conversation with Sauod, my guide.   


1) Incredible forts, perhaps the most of any country outside Europe, which I had not expected --
The two most impressive ones I saw were: Fort Nakhl --
and Fort Rustaq --

Fort Nakhl - Oman
2) Vast acres of date palms -- Oman has hundreds of date sorts, considered to be among the best in the world and the country's most important export.  I'm not generally a big fan of dates but I really do like some of the ones I've tasted here;

3) High, rugged mountains in the Sultanat's interior.

4) The city of Muscat which is a picturesque blend of old Arabic and modern buildings, walls, forts, and mosques.

4) Extensive conversations with Sauod, my tour guide: some of his surprising, often unsoliticited comments follow:

Within the first hour we were together he told me that he is not very religious, even though he prays 5 times on most days, goes to Mosque on Fridays and follows most normal Islamic practices (I sensed he was much more willing to admit this to an "infidel" than to a fellow Muslim).  And He  admitted that the pressure to conform is tremendous in this part of the world.  He said that he occasionally drinks wine or smokes socially but without the knowledge of his wife or children who are religious and would be very dissappointed.  He envies Westerners who he believes have an easier time blending religious and secular life.  He believes in Allah but thinks Christians and Jews are as likely to go to heaven as Muslims. But he doesn't like Zionists! 

As is very common in the Arabic world, his wife is the daughter of his mother's sister. He wanted to marry her from the time they were children and did so at his initiative and not because his parents told him to.  He worries alot about his oldest son who is a nice boy but has no goals or ambition. He doesn't worry much about his daughters.

He thinks it would be much easier in the West to be friends with ones children when they grow up.  He says Muslim men must continue to play the father role when their children are adults and have a tremendous fear of showing their real selves or any weakness.  He admitted that there is quite alot of hypocrisy in Muslim society (as there is in the West).

He enjoys the company of Westerners but detests George Bush.

Addendum: 8 March 2011:  An interesting article in today's New York Times about the Sultan