Hi folks! No, you’re not mistaken, there was definitely not an installment of Solemn Globetrotter last week. I probably should have told you this before, but as per my contract with Shanghai Squared I am allowed one day off from work each month. During which I’m allowed to step out of my cage, breathe some fresh air, eat a bowl of Pho or two, and call my loved ones to tell them I’m okay, before I get locked back in again. The reason this particular break took so long was that I accidentally wandered away and got lost, and spent days desperately trying to find my way back. Fortunately some representatives of Shanghai Squared finally discovered me approaching a police station (to ask for directions no doubt), and brought me back safe. So all is good in the world, yay! I may have overcompensated with a hefty amount of words this week, so try and bear with me until you get to the pictures.
There are a number of ways to get to Nepal from India, the easiest being a simple 2-hour flight from Delhi to Kathmandu. But we have a thing about doing things the easy way, which is that we don’t, usually. This is sometimes intentional, sometimes not. I suppose we just figured after getting all the way across and up through India solely by land, why not make the whole rest of the trip the same way?
So instead we hopped on a train to Agra, another train to Varanasi, yet another overnight train up to a small town called Gorakhpur, and a bus ride to Sunauli on the border of Nepal. Then, after a full day of travel, it was only a matter of buying our visa, paying the fees, crossing the border, and waiting for a bus that would take us away from the dusty polluted border into the “real” Nepal. Our waiting only took about two hours, but the bus ride took nine. And this was not a smooth bus ride, either. There are no Greyhound sleepers in Nepal. You’re winding up and around mountains and teetering on the edges of cliffs in the middle of the night, in a hard metal seat with half the cushion torn out, and sharing your legroom with your luggage.
And what happens when you finally get to your destination? Does the bus driver take you to your comfortable hotel and tuck you in safe and sound? No. He drives into a dark bus depot, turns the engine off, and tells you it’s time to sleep. It’s three o’clock in the morning, you are literally half a mile from where you want to be, and this driver is locking the doors and telling you it’s not safe to go outside until the morning. So he goes to the back of the bus and lies down for a power nap, while you’re left there sitting in your seat with a giant ‘WTF’ written all over your face, which you could see if only it weren’t completely pitch black. Welcome to Nepal!
Kathmandu is the capital of Nepal, and holds a massive portion of the country’s urban population. While it’s definitely a big, bustling city, it stands apart from other Asian capitals, the key difference being the preservation of the older parts of the city, some of which date back over 2000 years. Along with the smaller adjoining cities of Patan and Bhaktapur, it forms a massive tri-city UNESCO World Heritage Site filled to the brim with shrines, temples, palaces, and countless historic buildings. Aside from just offering something nice to look at, it seems to affect the whole atmosphere of the place. Like most dense Asian metropolises it’s replete with motorbikes and foot traffic, hawkers and merchants, tourists and thieves, and yet it’s somehow not at all stressful to take a walk around Kathmandu. Something about being surrounded by ancient buildings, full of intricate, gorgeous woodwork and stone carvings, seems to set the mind at ease.
A lot of this feeling could also have something to do with the fact that the people in Nepal are some of the kindest and most serene I’ve ever encountered. As it turns out, shockingly enough, the country that gave birth to the Buddha is exactly what you’d expect. Prayer and worship are a part of everyday life, karma is the highest and holiest of values, and men sit under trees discussing the nature of wisdom and existence. There is less commercialization or hegemonic dominance of religion here, only a sense of genuine spirituality, one that pervades and surrounds everything you see. It’s refreshing and intoxicating.
Getting oriented in Kathmandu is fairly easy. Most backpackers are dropped off in the Thamel district, filled with hotels and restaurants catering to the needs of anyone and everyone. From there, most of the city runs directly south, with pretty much every historical site lying somewhere on the path to, from, and around Durbar Square. Along with Patan, Bhaktapur, and the Swayambhunath Temple, Durbar Square is one of the most preserved and therefore most popular sites in Kathmandu. Containing a whole slew of temples surrounding a market-filled plaza, it’s a great place to see a slice of classic Kathmandu. By some stroke of genius, Durbar Square also acts as a toll plaza by default, as each of the five major roads that pass through it require a fee to enter, even if you only want to get from one side to the other. Cheeky.
But even better preserved and more ornate is the ancient capital city of Bhaktapur, located 13 km east of Kathmandu. Walking through its narrow streets really feels like being transported to another time. Bhaktapur has two major draws: the buildings, and the shopping. It’s easy to forget that this historical city is still just that, a city, with its own population of approximately 70,000 people. Living within a UNESCO protected zone, the local economy relies mostly on tourism, with craftworking being a very popular trade.
Actually there is another big draw. It’s called King Curd, and it’s the best damn yogurt you’ll ever have in your life. Served in a small clay cup, it’s tart, fresh, cool and delicious, and provides a great excuse to sit down and indulge the senses for a while before setting off down another alleyway.
And then there’s Pokhara, the launching point for our trek into the Annapurna region. This mountain town is situated on gorgeous Lake Phewa Tal (which is a bit redundant, as Tal itself means ‘lake’ in Nepali) smack dab in the middle of Nepal. I emphasize “mountain town” as this is literally where the Himalayas begin. Within 30km of the city, the elevation rises a massive 7,000 meters. Besides being incredibly impressive, this does two things for the city: one, it draws in countless numbers of backpackers and trekkers setting out into the mountains, and two, it creates some seriously nasty weather patterns.
Let me be more specific. Pokhara receives the highest annual rainfall of any city in Nepal, over 100 inches a year. Even when we were visiting in April, before the monsoon, it was still raining every afternoon. So when someone says “day hike”, what they really mean is a hike you start at six o’clock in the morning. Because if you’re still out past four, bad things happen. On an afternoon hike up to the hills around Pokhara, we found our path obscured by a giant black cloud approaching from the mountains. In a matter of minutes it was pouring rain, and before we knew it hail was falling from the sky, getting larger and larger, until we were literally being bombarded with golfball-sized hailstones. Eventually we find cover at a small restaurant, and with lighting cracking directly overhead, we stood and watched as the entire landscape was ravaged for almost an hour by the worst storm we’d seen in our lives up to that point (foreshadowing). By the end of it, the entire ground was covered with slush, glass lamps were shattered all around us, and we were bruised, beaten, and soaking wet. But we were alive, having survived our first lesson in Himalayan trekking.
Inclement weather aside, Pokhara still maintains a laid-back vibe that was established during Nepal’s rise to prominence as a travel destination for hippies in the 1970s. The streets are quiet and peaceful, walking is encouraged, and you can easily find yourself getting lost in a book sitting at a small cafe listening to wind chimes; before you know it, five days have passed. True story. But we managed to explore the surrounding areas a bit, and discovered that Pokhara has much more to offer than just relaxation. One of our more rewarding experiences involved taking a trip just 15km north to visit a Tibetan refugee camp outside of town. Tashi Palkhiel was one of the many camps founded in the 1960s as thousands of refugees fled across the border from Tibet following the failed uprising of 1959. Currently, over a thousand refugees live in this community, relying mostly on tourism to support their way of life.
The camp contains a large Tibetan Buddhist monastery, home to over a hundred monks. They range in age from under 7 to over 70, living and studying communally and working to support their community. Their daily prayer ceremonies are open for viewing, and are quite spectacular to observe. If the rising murmur of chanting met with crescendos of blasting horns and crashing percussion isn’t enough to stir you, I’m not sure what could. The monks are quite open to sharing this experience with visitors, and afterwards I was approached by a few of them eager to learn about my life and teach me about theirs. Their level of English was impressive, and I really enjoyed being able to connect with them.
As in many countries, Tibetan refugees have historically had a difficult time establishing and assimilating themselves in Nepal. Without any legal standing, they are unable to own property or businesses, and have no voice in national politics. For now, their lives are restricted to their immediate surroundings, and without a homeland to call their own, it will probably stay that way for the foreseeable future.