The siren’s call to travel came from Nepal, and we answered after our Eclipse wedding trip. The three oldsters, Tishla, MJ, and I, set off for Nepal and Bhutan last month.
Our Uber driver, Alan, proved a harbinger of smooth travel. He had just taken his Ph.d. in Applied Linguistics, and was interested in why we needed a ride to the airport. He had lived ten years in Korea, spent six months in Dharmsala, and wanted to hang up his taxi card and join us on our adventure.
Several weeks ago, Tishla read me an article on the Butterfield Stage. The first transcontinental passenger to arrive in the stage in San Francisco vowed he would not soon make the return trip, one he characterized as a “living hell,” riding 2000 miles in a stagecoach. While the trans-Pacific flight we flew to Shanghai was not nearly as grueling, it took us 28 hours to complete, painful even in a comfortable seat. Our day of flying was made more bearable by the beautiful aircraft, a Boeing 777, and its 21st century amenities.
My reading selection for the flight included Why Buddhism is True, by Robert Wright, published by Simon & Schuster (2017)., appropriate for our destination. The book is an engaging read, more conversational than empirical. Is enlightenment asymptotic? Does this goal ever reach completion? Not if you seek nirvana. We traveled, not as an exercise on the “hedonic treadmill,” but to go for ourselves, to travel in order to experience, to be in a new place. We prefer “experiential” mode — and, so on. Worth a read.
Sorak-san, Korea featured prominently for what seemed hours on the seat display. The simple interface glowed softly, a digital bouquet that brought a smile to my weary face. I added it to my bucket list
En route, we made connections in Shanghai for the southwestern city of Kunming. Kunming lies at 6200′ elevation in the foothills of the Himalayas. The city holds a special place in our family history. Bill White (“Unk”) flew the hump into this burgeoning western Chinese city during WWII, in support of China. Surrounded by rugged hills, six lane freeways surround miles of housing and industrial development, the dozer scars in the red earth evident from our vantage in our jet.
We stayed in a simple, clean guest house on our first leg in Kathmandu. Waiting for breakfast, we wandered up to the rooftop of our building to take in the view of the city. Boudha Stupa glittered in the morning haze, visible nearby (0.5 km) from the rooftop of our guest house. The next afternoon, we circled the stupa twice clockwise, stopping for a coffee at Himalayan Java. Tishla noted that stupas, in general, are reliquaries, this one in Boudanath lays astride an ancient Tibetan trade route. Buddhas painted, blue eyes follow the encircling faithful on all four sides of the spire. Boudanath offers shopping, dining and practice in almsgiving. Random alleys and caminitos tesselate this part of Kathmandu, creating a warren of narrow roads shared by pedestrians and motorcyclists.
Boudhanath Stupa was 0.3 mi (0.5 km) from Bodhi Guest House, an easy walk past monasteries and tourist hotels – our first stay in Nepal. We met up with David’s friend and Nepali guide, Dipak, for breakfast. A hunter and trekking guide, he helped us navigate the temples and roads of Kathmandu. The infrastructure in Nepal’s capitol, particularly the road maintenance, makes Mexico seem first world, by comparison. Chaotic traffic on non-existent road beds mixed with thousands of scooters, pedestrians and mud; few places we’ve been in Mexico compare, and certainly not D.F.
Bhaktapur and the Garden of Dreams
Reminders of the 2015 earthquake are everywhere in Nepal. Bakhtapur draws thousands of tourists every week amid the din and dust of reconstruction. Known as the “city of devotees,” this UNESCO world heritage site is a religious and art city near Kathmandu. Temples and homes were heavily damaged in the 7.8 magnitude earthquake; many propped up, braced by rows of bamboo poles. Thanks to the generosity of the German and Austrian governments, extensive rebuilding projects fill the Durbar square of Bakhtapur.
Three princes, brothers, ruled the three main cities of Kathmandu valley: Patan, Bhaktapur, and the capitol. All three cities contain similar temples, squares named Durbar, and palaces adorned in Hindu gods and intricate teak carvings. Too, nagas appear in the public and royal pools, from where the king and his people drew their mountain-fed water. Nagas are associated with water, their sinuous brass forms encircling the many fountains, naga decals decorating the pervasive water trucks.
In this heavily forested country, we were surprised by the infrequent green swards and parks, given the British tradition of green parklands. One respite was Pashupati Park, a World Heritage site. Everything, people, buildings, vehicles are coated in a brown film. The combination is immediately authentic. We did stop at the Garden of Dreams for lunch and to calm our senses. Squirrels work the crowds amid the lush gardens, while monkeys patrol the enclosing buildings.
Scooters are the preferred form of transportation in Nepal. As in Mexico, the llanteras must certainly prosper because of the condition of many roads. My take is that Nepalis are better drivers than Mexicans. Road conditions here are more demanding, both because the surface is degraded, or bare earth, and the crowds density. Lorries, cars, pedestrians and thousands of scooters fill the streets from bank to bank, the screech of horns warning with only millimeters to spare.
The salient difference between the two traffics boils down to competition versus cooperation. Driving in Mexico is like the game of fútbol. You have the “ball”? Then, you go. How to know if you have the ball – look in the other driver’s eyes. Mexican roads permit friendly competition. In Nepal, conditions and crowding reduce the game to one of survival. Yes, you drive aggressively in Kathmandu, with no room for rage or bravado. We repeatedly observed Nepalis struggling together to overcome unimaginable traffic. The night we arrived, our driver and all those who shared the road with us, performed death-defying acts on the muddy dirt byways. MJ chortled with joy from the front seat – she finds trunk-to-hood driving at silly speeds in a rusty taxi is fun.
We chose to visit Kathmandu during the festivals of Dashain and Tihar. Garlands of marigolds littered the street, women wore their finest, most colorful saris, and the temples and stupas were decorated, some even in the entrails of animals sacrificed for the festival. We walked frequently given the traffic jams seizing the city in every direction.
A wedding in the middle of the Boudinath area, during Dashain:
Tambos provide tap water to the majority of businesses and homes, some pottery, most black ABS, many shiny stainless steel. We took late afternoon showers, to permit the solar- heated water to warm the water stored in each container. Electricity outages happened daily, the residents non-plussed. Much of their cooking is done with propane or charcoal/wood. The valley smog caused many people to don particulate masks for protection.
Durbar Square & Pashupatinath
The din of restoration work in Durbar Square echoed off the surrounding buildings. Many temples, statues, and government buildings were reduced to rubble in the 2015 earthquake. Prices for singing bowls, prayer flags, and incense are reportedly the best in the square. The vendors were too aggressive for my taste, which surprised me because they are quite polite, even docile, in the rest of Kathmandu.
While in the square, a guide led us to the royal palace, for a special audience with the kumari. I’ll yield to MJ and Tishla to explain the intricacies of the sisterhood of the kumaris. Suffice it to say, it was a unique experience for us non-Hindus. The royal kumari, the incarnation of Durga, appeared in the third floor balcony, and a gathering of us received her blessing in respectful silence.
Eventually, Durbar Square will be restored to its former glory, but the dust and noise soon drove us to a quiet, air-conditioned coffee shop overlooking the merchants of Durbar.
We visited the Pashupatinath Temple by the river near our guest house. After purification, Brahmins burn bodies in the Bagmati R. The custom here is to cremate remains within two hours of death.
The complex contains the riverside crematory, an hospice, dozens of small stupas that serve as housing for holy men, and living quarters for the indigent and homeless. Sacred monkeys and cows share the temple grounds with the living and the dead. Mendicant lepers line the stone stairs that rise above the river.
One of the sites I most wanted to visit in Nepal was the Monkey Temple. Located in the west side of Kathmandu, Swayambunath rises 250 meters above the surrounding city. Most of the mount is covered in a dense canopy of trees. Hundreds of monkeys and dogs share the stupas and walkways with merchants and tourists.
I sat quietly near mother monkeys and their wary babies. I liked the monkeys, sensed little to no aggression, or hostility. They live in the Swayambunath forest in families, patiently grooming each other with kind and loving attention. The dogs and monkeys, I was told, occasionally fight, but the morning we visited the temple I saw no fights, just tired animals. Most street dogs guard their neighborhoods vigorously, active especially in the two or three hours before dawn.
We taxied to the ticket entrance, wandered a bit, then climbed to the top stupa, only to find vendors holy and profane crowding the summit. I tried to purchase kyanite both at Swayambunath and in Pokhara (at 2500 rupees per carat), but in the end I found myself not liking the color or the energy of the stone. I eventually found an acceptable sample, in a set of earrings Tishla bought, in Pokhara. These “Nepali sapphires” are panned from Himalayan riverbeds, are an authentic and unique Nepalese stone, but too expensive to resell in the States.
Monks chanting atop Swayambunath:
All flights to Pokhara were sold out, so we took the bus. It sounds so simple: 900 rupees ($9) per person to travel 200 km. Yet, Dashain holiday traffic was so congested it took us three hours to reach the Katmandu city limits.
Nepali drivers will do whatever is necessary to negotiate the roads, except hurt each other. So attuned are they to any and all vehicles, they will stop or swerve for seemingly no reason. No reason until one observes the rock and sway of opposing traffic, making allowance for a truck’s tilt as it negotiates the uneven roadbed.
Our air-conditioned tourist bus was packed with families and singles traveling home to Pokhara. We rocked out to Nepal’s top 40 music, consisting mostly of ‘challenge-and-response’ duets.
Kathmandu-Naubise-Galchi-Rastriya Banijya-Muskqn-Damouli, all towns or wide spots in the road on our way to Pokhara. The glacier gray Trisuli (“three in one”) river flowed west along our route. Terraced rice paddies stepped down to the river, connected to roads and homes by a network of graceful, catenary suspension bridges.
We stopped twice for threatening restrooms and dubious food. Nepalis are cheery, despite reality. Mini mercados litter the roadside by the thousands, every family seems to run a retail business, perhaps several.
We arrived eleven hours after we began, the journey alternating from grinding traffic to breathtaking vistas, thousand meter chasms and smoke filled valleys.
The next morning, I awoke with Tishla pointing to the north: Annapurna rising above the dawn mist outside our window here in La Jolla del Everest. We went to breakfast, flavors new and pleasing. Later, I sat on our 4th-floor balcony, watching parasails glide over Sarangtok, before lazily descending down to the lake. At dinner, I noted the many tourists present from Europe and America, mostly families and trekkers. Sunset here in the Himalayan foothills is soft and peaceful.
Pokhara is much less noisy and dusty than Kathmandu, an excellent respite by the lake. We had rain and thunder several days during our stay.
Pokhara agreed with all three of us, the locals were “sweet,” lacking the hard edge I’ve experienced elsewhere. We recovered from our bus ride from Kathmandu to Pokhara, and spent six relaxing days by the lake. Paragliders filled morning and afternoon skies above Sarangkot, tourist pangas ply Phewa Lake, the markets and shops thrum with tourists, restauranteurs, and tourists.
The Peace Pagoda (Ashanti), is a stupa located on Ananda hill at 1100 m elevation. Lake Fewa (or, Fewa Tal) is part of a series of six lakes. Fewa Tal sits at 742m, the hike ascending 368m to the 71st of 80 peace pagodas worldwide.
The stupa is reached by boat from Pokhara. A Scottish ex-pat, Tim, befriended us, expertly guiding us to the government-licensed pilots. Once ashore, Tishla and I climbed up to venerate the Buddha, the climb from the lake to the peak took about an hour. Putali, butterflies, filled the dark, green canyons with flashes of color.
At the stupa, at the feet of the four buddhas, clouds of dragon flies hovered in the breeze, above gardens of marigolds. We processed twice clockwise around the spire, and repeated the rubric again on the highest level. From our vantage of the city and surrounding hills, it appeared we were floating above the distant paragliders.
Our descent took as long as our ascent, bad knees required a supreme effort from Tishla. I am sure the Buddha observed her suffering, and will remember her at her next incarnation. She is an inspiration.
Lakeside, MJ was waiting for us, having made a friend with another American. We learned that the stupa can also be accessed by car. Hah! Reminds of the time Tishla, Ellen and Katy climbed a thousand feet to a German monastery, only to discover tour buses and a parking lot greeting them from the other direction. I swear, if a harder way exists, this group will find it.
Our boat woman arrived, and ferried us back to Pokhara, the aroma of incense wafting across Fewa Tal. We spent the remainder of our days in Pokhara eating, shopping, sleeping. Its hard work adjusting to ‘Nepali time.’
The map in my mind is flat until I walk the actual ground. The terrain changes from hic sunt dracones to a kinescope of 3D images. I can see the map before we visited – mountainous, snowy, cold. In actual fact, it’s a jungle by latitude and habit. Kathmandu changed from six million cyphers to a vibrant, gritty collection of tribes working together.
Nepal, land and people, are truly enchanting. The consensus is that we must come back. We shall see. Next up is Bhutan , and Chitwan. More adventures, more journeys call to us than we have time.