We landed in Kathmandu on a summer morning, wet, warm and tropical embraced. A local entered in our taxi. With courtesy and honesty, he made an offer of a car rent for our limited time trip. He also offered to help us with the Indian visa – the next stop of the trip – collecting our passports from the embassy if needed. We borrowed umbrellas at the hotel. It’s probably the first time on a journey that I look like Mary Poppins. The trip looks disappointing at that monsoon season. But I am on my trip, my big trip this year, away from the everyday life of the Western world, with a new part of the planet in front to discover. After Nepal and another short transit through India, I will end up at my ultimate destination, Pakistan, which I’m sure will amaze me. Nepal is a quite touristic country for my taste, although this season is considered low tourism. Besides, as I usually say, there is a reason why some places are touristic and most of the time are remarkable for the visitor. Nepal belongs to them and despite its small size, has a surplus of beauty. Unfortunately, limited time and weather will not allow mountain hikes such as the Everest Base Camp (10-15 days), the Anapurna Base Camp (7 days) or even short-haul trips to the Himalayas, let alone the remote Mustang tribe area on west Nepal. So, by abolishing the adrenaline rate, we run off with our umbrellas in the busy, muddy and traffic-stricken Kathmandu.
Thamel is the city’s tourist center, where, besides hotels and restaurants for all budgets and tastes, its narrow streets vibrate with life and commercial activity. Despite the fatigue of the trip we will visit as much as possible from the sights of the city on the first day and the rest will await us on our return the last day. Bhaktapur is 8 km from Kathmandu and Durbar Square is scattered with magnificent palaces and temples. It is the country’s most famous UNESCO World Heritage Site, and attracts many tourists which at that time were mostly of Asian origin. To enter the historic center, it is obliged to pay a ticket, as in most of the city’s monuments. But one can avoid this if he penetrates through sidewalks. In most buildings that are made of red bricks and have the shape of a pagoda, one can climb the stairs and enjoy the view. Some of the adjoining cafes offer an even better view but not a remarkable environment. We will wander through the streets where we’ll meet traditional potters, sweets vendors and men and women of labor, craftsmen repairing the earthquake-stricken buildings.
Durbar squares – that is, squares of palaces – there are several in Nepal and the next one to visit is in Patan, close to the capital city. I will be honest. I already feel a bit bored with those similar type of monuments. Fortunately however, there is much more to be seen in Nepal.
The next day’s wake up call was at 5 o’clock in the morning, as we decided to take a flight that -weather allowing- will fly us next to the Himalayas, hoping to offer passengers a view of the highest summit on the planet. The torrential rain and the dense fog were not a good sign, but we hoped that the Gods of the mountain will be in a good mood today. Unfortunately they were not and after two hours of waiting, the flight was canceled and the hopes were postponed for the last day, upon return in Kathmandu. So we are leaving the city for a route that was slow, rainy, tortuous on the country’s bad road network, in conditions comparable to those of India some years before, (India has now made spectacular leaps of modernization). After a few hours we ascend in a misty forest. The route stops in a small settlement because mud makes the rest of road inaccessible even for the 4X4 vehicle. With the umbrellas on hand, protecting cameras as much as possible and balancing on the side of the muddy road, after an one hour hiking, we arrive at the first buildings of the Nama Buddha monastery. A small stupa with arrays of bronze cylindrical prayer wheels and another one big sized revolving clockwise for holy blessing. A path of many steps passes through the foggy forest, with colored flags of prayers creating a scenery like a fantasy movie. At some point, the main building complex of the monastery is revealed, magnificent and golden, dominating over the haze. It is the Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery, which is called simply Namo Buddha as the name of the nearby settlement. It is the most important Buddhist worship site in Nepal and one of the most sacred in the world. The ancient legend says that a merciful prince 6000 years ago, gave his life to feed a tiger with five kittens who were about to die of starvation. 3500 years later, Gautama Buddha himself, after striding three times around the stupa where the Prince’s bones were buried, declared that he’s a reincarnation of him. The monastery, like most in Nepal, can host visitors. The meal time for the monks is over and the outer spaces are filled with red mantles and monks of all ages. Besides the magic of the surrounding area, is the main hall of the temple with the great statue of Buddha, the tributes and the elaborate frescoes, where we’ll enjoy some moments of tranquility and meditation. Returning to Kathmandu in the evening I will have the opportunity to enjoy a beneficial massage at the blind people organization, an experience I didn’t have the opportunity to attend in other countries.
The road to Pokhara, will be definitely long at this season. The country’s main road, linking the two largest cities, is a winding path, narrow with one lane in each direction, with heavy traffic and landslides. The time required to travel to Nepal and to the wider Himalayan region is not guaranteed, and this has also been proven in our case. An traffic block for several hours for unknown reason, forced us to spend the idle time walking for several kilometers alongside the immobilized trucks, busses and cars, beside the inflated river with hanging footbridges, having contact with the buses’ passengers, the truck drivers, all trapped there too. We arrived at night in Pokhara, built on the banks of an idyllic lake, although the city, like Kathmandu does not exert any particular charm. The hotel we found after long search was beautiful and after the delightful dinner I had enough time on the computer to fix the bureaucratic Indian e-visa application process, bypassing some terms.
Let’s leave back bureaucratic details and start on a nice morning for sightseeing in the wider region. We put on the map destination, the Tibetan monastery Jangchub Choeling, a place of serenity, resting on a hill above the river. It has dormitories and school for young monks as well as other facilities such as a large swimming pool. It was a special day for the monastery. The monks, from little children to teenager age, began to linger in the courtyard and getting ready, holding in hands flowers and long strips of prayers. At one point a limousine appeared, two adult monks with fancy hooded hats, rushed to hold colorful umbrellas over the head of the guru who honored the monastery with his visit. He, a young, smiling and kind figure, greeted the students and entered the interior of the monastery. The monks gathered in the main temple, ate and then began their enchanting chanting.
A major attraction is the Devi waterfalls, which did not seem particularly impressive to me, but just across the street is the cave entrance where the river flows underground, the Gupteshwor Mahadev Cave. Apart from the view of the rushing river that seems to flow in the underworld, the outer space consists of a beautiful Hindu temple with circular stairs, in honor of Lord Shiva. A group of men and women were singing a mandras, which was followed by a middle-aged lady dancing. The next destination is the World Peace Pagoda which, as one imagines, is … a pagoda, on the top of a hill reached after climbing many stairs under the hot sun and exhausting humidity. Amphitheatrical view of Pokhara with the lake is remarkable, but even more interesting was the transient revelation through the cloud, of the snow-capped southern peak of Annapurna. After a visit to the settlement of Tibetan refugees who greeted us with a smile, we return to Pokhara for a romantic boating on the lake, with the evening light giving idyllic colors as the sun is hiding behind the clouds and mountain peaks of the horizon.
The winding route to this important city goes through beautiful landscapes, stepped rice fields with their bright green color and the snowy Annapurna mountains in the background. Lumbini is so important because Siddhartha Gautama was born here in 563 BC, and some years later he conquered Enlightenment and became Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. Just a step away from the Indian border, the importance of the small settlement is focused on a rectangular area of 5 x 1.5 km, which is an exclusive sacred area. EveryBuddhist country has built its own monastery, usually majestic and following the corresponding local style. It takes a long time for the visitor to see them. On the first day we got an electric rickshaw to reduce distances. The most important monument of all, is the temple of Maya devi that hosts the sacred rock of birth. A ruinous building that encloses the ancient ruins protects against the weather. A significant number of pilgrims, mostly from India, came to worship while some sadhu (the followers of the spiritual path) were meditating in the courtyard. The next day we started early, this time on foot, to explore the other temples. Among them, the Burmese Temple with a small copy of the golden Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, the bright white Thai temple, the artistic Cambodian temple, the much decorated Chinese, the kitsch Vietnamese and the grandiose Korean. These days Lumbini was reminiscent of a sauna. The humidity was unbearable, the sun ruthless, and I felt my body perforated as water was leak from my skin. In this weather, my travel buddy forgot his backpack with camera, all his money and the passport with visas, at the Cambodian temple in which, incidentally, cleaning and construction work was done. After one kilometer of agonizing run, the backpack was intact.
This city is a tourist attraction for tourists as it is attached to the same named, wildlife national park. Once a place of hunting for the elite class, now it’s a UNESCO’s heritage site, while the park hosts a wide variety of birds, reptiles and mammals, including the small sized Indian rhino and the magnificent Bengali tiger. The park can be explored by selecting a 4X4 vehicle, elephant ride, or hiking with guard escort. At this time, however, the vegetation is high, the meadows flooded and the chances of meeting with these rare species are small. The dawn finds me enjoying my breakfast in the garden of the cute hotel, next to the river that divides the settlement of people from that of the animal kingdom. The night storm has finished but the sky is still gray. In the city streets, among vehicles there are elephants crossing, probably with not much job for tourists at this time. We decided to get with a vehicle in the park, hoping to increase the chance of wildlife seeing.
Sadly, safari is not a guaranteed activity, and since I’m not in an African National Park, it needs luck to spot big mammals. Luck was not much by our side, we spotted a flock of rhinos but far away from us. Not a chance for the rare tiger. The beautiful ride in this biosphere was accompanied by herds of deer and colorful birds, including the familiar ugly marabu.
I had an idea to suggest our return from an alternative route to avoid the traffic jams of the main road. The road had no traffic indeed but it was too bad, narrow, mountainous, and winding. This is not something new for Nepal, but still was a worse version. In the difficulty level, dense fog was added. For us the experience was amazing, the route gave us beautiful scenery, crossing the forested mountainous landscape, but the driver did not seem to enjoy it and declared this was the first and last time to try. Approaching Kathmandu, we find other monasteries with gigantic statues of deities appearing in the misty landscapes. By the day of our departure, we’ll admire many more monuments. Additionally, we’ll finally make the flight above Everest, with the snowcapped higher point of the planet rising above the clouds.
We return to the city monuments, including the two major ones, Swayambhunath temple and the Bouddhanath stupa. The first, a cluster of temples with a large central pagoda, is situated on top of a hill with a 3600 view of the capital city. The place of worship is full of pilgrims doing their strange Hindu rituals, but their number is surpassed by the monkeys living around the temple. The animals have a lot of audacity with people, sometimes getting aggressive, they tend to attack and steal food or drinks from your hands. I prevailed by repelling the thief who tried to steal a juice can from my hands and angrily it bit another passerby. Finally, I gave it the can, which tore with it’s teeth and enjoyed the content. Bouddhanath, 11 km north of the city, is a huge-sized stupa, one of the largest in Nepal and the world and the country’s trademark. Old legends accompany the history of the monument, which later became a point of the trade route with Tibet and eventually hosted refugees from there at the time of their persecution. The great earthquake has caused serious damage to the building that has been restored now. Numerous pilgrims and monks roam the perimeter, and many tourists as well. You can avoid paying a ticket here too.
Then we will visit Pashupatinath, a complex of worship temples on the banks of the Bagmati River. The central temple is unfortunately only accessible to Hindus, and one can only distinguish from the entrance the statue of an enormous golden cow. Pashupatinath is the largest cremation place in the city. Like in Varanasi, India, as well as elsewhere in these countries, cremations take place in public view and one can experience with the relatives of the deceased, the shocking process. Next to the river, many altars in line are the last resting point of the lifeless body of those who leave this futile world, to reincarnate according to the Hindu faith. On a burning stack of woods, bodies are melting in front of your eyes, releasing a relentless odour. A carer with a long bamboo stick, shakes the fire and overturns the bodies until they are completely burned! At the end, with buckets, they wash the remains by throwing them into the river.
The trip will end in a sunny day at Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, with many temples, outdoor souvenir shops and a visit to the house of Kumari, the living goddess. This girl is chosen by five wise priests, based on specific physical features and originating from the silversmiths cast. Necessary features are extreme health, never bled, no tooth loss and other physical features with a poetic description. “Neck like a shell, body like a banyan tree, cow’s lashes, deer’s thighs, a lion’s chest and a voice clean and gentle like a duck”. At the evening of the anointing, 108 buffaloes and goats are sacrificed, and the little goddess is led to a courtyard with animals heads around and masked dancers under the candle’s moonlight. If not afraid, she is considered appropriate. Until the moment of her menstrual, when she loses her divine substance, she lives permanently in the palace and goes out for religious ceremonies only, she can not touch the earth with her feet and is carried everywhere by carriers. Even her family rarely visit her and only on official ceremonies. Hundreds of people await under the upper floor window of the house of wood-carved facades, for her to appear and give them a glance. Photos are restricted, so we were ready for a smug click but the goddess did not appear as long as we waited.
Nepal, although it was a complementary destination for my trip, gave me an exciting experience and unique moments and images. It is a place that reasonably attracts so many visitors and is worth for dedicating time to experience the beauty feel its pulse.