Thursday, 27 February 2014

Head in the Clouds

Despite having been lucky enough to do a lot of travelling, (my mum was actually an air hostess when I was little so we used to get lots of lovely cheap holidays) I'd never been further East than Jordan before November last year. But an old university friend of my boyfriend's is currently posted out in Kathmandu with his wife and their twin toddlers, so we decided to go and visit them.
There had been a religious festival recently and so many of the decorations were still up- multicoloured flags and garlands of marigolds threaded onto string, decorating doorways.
It's always strange to see familiar brands in foreign places, especially when the characters in the adverts look so different to the western ones- I loved the ladies in the Coca Cola ads!

When we arrived at the British Embassy, there was instantly evidence of some of the cultural differences we could expect:
After loading up the family's jeep, we all set off to stay in the ambassador's lodge in the mountains. We ended up having what we'd come to learn was a characteristically Nepalese journey- the jeep broke down half way up the mountain and we had to hitch a lift to the next village with a local truck driven by strawberry-pickers. The twins enjoyed stuffing strawberries in their mouths whilst sitting on our knees, whilst the men squeezed in the back of the truck with all our luggage!
Our rescuers could only drive us a certain way as they had to get back to town with their strawberries, so from where they dropped us we had to trek the last bit of mountain, loaded with luggage, in pitch darkness! Luckily the moon was out and their were even glow-worms along the road.
The next morning we got to see how beautiful the lodge's location was- this was the view of the Himalayas from our garden:
The lodge was nestled next to a tiny village which was probably my favourite part of the whole trip- the colourful houses were so beautiful and it was great to see the way the locals lived, with their cows and chickens in their yards and little shops in their living rooms to sell tea and other basics to travellers. They were very friendly and welcoming and fascinated by the twins who are blonde and gorgeous- I seem to only have got a good picture of Girl Twin, Emily; here she is with my other half!

We spent a couple of idyllic days in the mountains where the weather was gorgeous- still warm for November even up at that altitude.
Back in Kathmandu there was some sort of strike on associated with the forthcoming elections, so many tourists had been advised to stay in their hotels in case of violence. We were told that it should be fine as long as we stayed away from any crowds, so we set off into town, roughly following the walk in The Lonely Planet guide book. This actually turned out to be really good timing, as it meant that due to the strike, most of the shops and vendors were closed and there were virtually no tourists around so we got to explore in peace. 
Generally I don't like trying to follow set walks, but the city is so full of incredible stuff that's hidden around every corner, I didn't want to miss anything given that we were on a flying visit and so didn't have time to explore slowly. Here's a great example- the little door in the wall above led through to a square being used as a motorcycle parking lot- but if you look up there were ancient balconies with the most intricate wooden carvings.

There were so many amazing details around the winding streets- we even spotted one of the little space invader mosaics that have popped up all over the world- there used to be one on our street in London.
Here you can see more evidence of the recent religious celebrations- marigolds, streamers and shrines.

I really wish we'd had luggage space to bring back some of the gorgeous things we saw- these Nepalese quilts were so gorgeous- we had them on the beds in the mountain lodge and they were so cosy, then we saw some being made on the streets of Kathmandu; they seemed to be stuffed with rags and strips of fabric.
I'd also have liked to buy some of the pots, but again, not great for travelling with!
We did, however, buy one of the national 'Tiger Moving Game' boards with little, carved brass tigers and goats.

In the main Durbar square you can see the 'living goddess' Kumari Devi- we weren't there at the right time of day to do so, but we saw some of the beautiful paintings of her, like the one above.
Durbar square was full of incredible architecture alongside locals selling food, drink and souvenirs. The carving on the buildings was spectacular- and in some places, rather raunchy...see if you can spot the Rude!

One evening we went to the really beautiful Baber Mahal Revisited, a group of shops and restaurants in the converted courtyards and cow sheds of the old palace. I bought some handmade playing cards for my brother from Paper Moon.
We ate in Baithak restaurant which was full of gorgeous black and white photos and portraits of old Rana maharajas.
We also managed to find time to visit Swayambhunath, also known as the monkey temple- for obvious reasons...

The view from the top was fantastic, and the monkeys were charming, but we had mixed feelings about this place, as well as Kathmandu as a whole. It's a steep climb up to the top via a long staircase, and there you're cornered by a lot of beggars, including small children and mothers, as well as sellers who can be quite pushy. It's hard to avoid feeling a lot of 'white guilt' especially when you see all the western tourists around and realise how rich we must seem to the locals. But the way they're trying to make money from tourists doesn't feel very sustainable- taxi drivers tried to rip us off a few times (we'd been told by our hosts what it was reasonable to charge) and even though the amount they're asking for only equates to a few pounds, it gets depressing constantly being asked for more than something should cost and having to haggle it down. Similarly, we weren't really into all the touristy tat that they were trying to sell at the top of Swayambhunath- stalls and stalls all selling virtually identical stuff.

But the monkeys were great fun to watch- they took no notice of the crowds of tourists and just went about their business climbing on ancient statues and monuments and enjoying the view. Visiting places away from the traffic made us realise quite how polluted it was down in the centre of Kathmandu- the car fuel is dirty so the fumes are terrible and the air is thin anyway as you're so high up, so it can sometimes be hard to breathe- carrying a scarf to put over your nose and mouth is advisable.
The one refuge we found from the pollution in town was The Garden of Dreams, a stunning neoclassical garden which has a great restaurant and little luxuries like wifi, which make it the perfect place to go and relax or do some work.
Whilst the garden is in the heart of the city, once you're inside it's easy to forget you're somewhere urban. In fact, even on the main streets of Kathmandu, nature is never far away- we were walking along one day when our hosts told us to look up and pointed out to us bats the size of small dogs hanging from the branches above our heads!

There was an exhibition of pictures of the gardens before they were restored, all overgrown with broken statues covered in plants- proper Secret Garden stuff. You can read about how it was restored here, but sadly I can't find any of the exhibition photos online.
And that was really all we had time for- we only stayed for a week so I think we managed to fit quite a lot in. If I went back for longer I'd definitely want to spend more time exploring places outside Kathmandu like the hillside village we went to. The city is fascinating, but not somewhere I really felt comfortable as a tourist- which is perhaps just because it was my first time visiting that part of the world. I'm so glad we did though, as it was unlike anything I've experienced in the western world. 
I'd love to hear about any of your travelling experiences in the region- as always, do please leave comments or links to your blog posts below.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Say it with flowers...

Call me old fashioned, but I am always happy to be given flowers or chocolates- for Valentine's Day, birthdays or even Christmas, these gifts work because they're lovely little indulgences that you don't normally treat yourself to.
 Now, add a bottle of rum to the equation, and you've got one kick-ass present; Kraken Rum have done just this by giving away flowers and booze in their pop-up 'Think Ink' florist.
The link, of course, is between the inky black flowers and the ink produced by the legendary kraken monster- the shop is bedecked in tentacles and giant eyeballs in jars, as well as glorious flowers. I went to pick out my bouquet and nab a bottle of rum today, but they're open to the public from 8am tomorrow, you get flowers and rum for a £5 donation to charity until they run out! It's on the ground floor of Kingley court, just off Carnaby street.
For the more conventional amongst you, I thought I'd also recommend some of my favourite London florists- The Flower Appreciation Society are wonderful, run by the lovely Ellie and Anna.
I also love the look of Grace and Thorn's arrangements- especially this box of succulents, perfect for planting in your terrarium.
You may have noticed, I'm slightly obsessed with terrariums. I'm still waiting for Hermetica to launch their website properly, but I've also found some nice ones for cacti through A Rum Fellow.
And for those living south/west, there's the fairly new Battersea Flower Station.
My other half and I have just moved house, so we're feeling quite romantic as it's the first flat that's been 'ours' which is a nice feeling. There won't be any fancy dinners though as the kitchen is still in a state and we're too poor from paying movers to afford to eat out, so it'll probably be a takeaway and a movie, but you know what? That's really what we enjoy the most anyway.
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