Part 2 - Nepal
15.04.2014 - 21.04.2014 -27 °C
The flight from Varanasi to Kathmandu is less than an hour and after the slightly painful form filling and queuing required to obtain the entry visa at Nepal’s main airport we were met by Buddish and his driver Sunit. It was April 15th and yesterday was New Year’s Day in Nepal ………………….. in the year 2071!!!!!
Our hotel was the Soaltee Crowne Plaza in Kathmandu and the facilities were perfect for the next three nights. Nepal already had a less chaotic feel to it and we were glad that we had seen India first followed by Nepal rather than the other way around. It had been an extraordinary twelve days so far and we were able to relax and enjoy free time for the rest of the day but tomorrow we would start to explore the three cities of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur and some of the seven UNESCO World heritage sites located in the valley.
Our first full day in Kathmandu was day 13 of our trip. Buddish met us in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza and before lunch we would have a good look around Kathmandu city. The first stop was Durbar Square which is full of temples and palaces and was the seat of royalty before Nepal ceased to be a kingdom in 2008. The architecture is amazing and while the square was busy it was much calmer and more orderly than what we had become used to in India. We visited Kumari Che, the temple where the current Kumari (Living Goddess) lives during her time in the position. Basically, a young girl of appropriate background and free from any scars or other physical blemishes is selected to be Kumari at the age of 4 and given up willingly by her family until she reaches puberty when a new Kumari is selected for the position. During the 8 years or so that she fills the role she stays inside the Kumari Che on all but 13 days of the year when she is seen outside as a goddess at the different festivals that take place. That apart, she is occasionally seen for a few seconds only each day at the small window in the courtyard of Kumari Che in Durbar Square. We were fortunate to arrive at the right time to see her appear for probably no more than 30 seconds - strictly no photographs allowed!
The Kumari temple is old with very ornate wooden balconies and window screens, not untypical of many of the buildings in the city which tend to be of wood and brick compared to India where marble and sandstone are mainly used. After climbing the 9-story pagoda and having great views of central Kathmadu from the top we were driven to the temples and stupa at Swayambhunath which is situated on the top of a hill just on the edge of the city. Locally known as the monkey temple (another one!) there is a large tribe of monkeys which you need to be wary of if you visit. We visited in the afternoon when they tend to be a bit quieter and less hungry and although we saw a few they weren’t any bother at all. The temples and stupa at Swayambhunath were well worth the visit and also provided more views of Kathmandu city.
We had another early start the following day to catch a short flight around the Himalayas to see Mount Everest before breakfast. We left at 5 a.m. and headed for the Domestic Terminal at Kathmandu Airport. The previous day all mountain flights had been cancelled because of heavy snow and poor visibility but our flight was called and we boarded the small bus that took us to the steps of the Buddha Air plane. We then sat on the bus and were told that there would be a delay of 15 minutes but this only put off the inevitable “All Mountain Flights Cancelled” announcement. It was a blow but once again for the right reasons; heavy snow and poor visibility. The following day the news filtered through about 16 Sherpa’s losing their lives following an avalanche just above Base Camp on Mount Everest.
So we headed back to the hotel for breakfast minus our Mount Everest experience but we still had more to look forward too over the coming days. Buddish explained that today we would visit the giant stupa of Bouddhanath, the centre of Tibetan Buddhism throughout the world, then Pashupatinath (Temple of Lord Shiva) and Bhasmeshvar Ghat on the Bagmati River followed by the cities of Patan and Bhaktapur.
The giant stupa of Bouddhanath was massive. One of the largest in the world it is surrounded by a circular parade of temples and traders selling different Nepali and Tibetan products. Rows and rows of colourful prayer flags angle down from the top of the stupa to its base while the many visitors walked clockwise around the base or explored the different levels of the giant white structure. We entered a temple, located between the traders on the perimeter, and watched as two children struggled to get a massive prayer wheel turning. Inside the temple two tourists were being blessed by one of the Buddhist Monks, no doubt for a fee; something that is generally frowned upon by the Buddhist community. It was hot around the stupa and with little shade outside we took brief respite inside one of the shops and then sat for a demonstration of Tibetan artwork inside a Thangka House.
Still in Kathmandu we moved on to Pashupatinath, a Hindu temple on the Bagmati River which is considered by some to be the holiest in the world. It is also the site of Kathmandu’s equivalent of the cremation ghat on India’s River Ganges that we had seen a few days earlier at Varanasi. Holy Men, long hair, faces daubed with colour sit outside a temple willing to have their photos taken - but again only for a few Rupees. Compared to the ghat at Varanasi, this one on the Bagmati River is more enclosed and as a result arguably more intimate. It felt more ‘purpose built’ as a place of cremation with many separate platforms for the public funerals. But like at Varanasi, there was a steady activity both on the platforms and on the ghat with a body being carried in to the area from the town while another was being prepared for cremation while a family looked on and as we walked around.
Separated only by a river from Kathmandu, Patan is full of Hindu temples and Buddhist monuments and it was here that we bought a Singing Bowl as our single momento of Nepal. Buddish, our guide, was doing a great job showing us around the valley. His English was excellent and he was good company and he found us a lovely place for lunch, on a rooftop terrace overlooking the main square and temples. Having missed out on our flight to the mountain a bottle of Everest beer was as close to the world’s highest mountain as I would get.
At the small medieval town of Bhaktapur we parked the car at the bottom of the hill and slowly climbed to the main square where we found what appeared to be the entire town out in force and celebrating one of their many festivals. Groups of women dressed in colourful and different costumes queued to make offerings and bands played while ice cream men did a good trade under the afternoon sun and two balloon sellers argued over their ‘turf’. More photos! It’s difficult to work out where (of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur) one stops and another starts as they almost merge seamlessly into one city but each had its own style and were worth seeing.
Our three nights in and around Kathmandu had been great. More relaxing than India and perfect as we edged towards the last few days of the holiday. Our final stop in Nepal would be Pokhara, a short hop by plane from Kathmandu. Buddish and Sunit dropped us off at the airport where the 25 minute flight took us along the edge of the Himalayas which in itself was a trip worth taking. At Pokhara airport we were met by Dipak and taken to Fishtail Lodge; literally a five minute drive by car. The lodge is on the edge of a lake and only accessible by rope-pull raft which meant it was secluded and quiet and perfect for the final couple of days. More tropical than anywhere in India that we had been or Kathmandu, Pokhara town is a tidy place with Tibetan influences and sits right on the edge of the Himalayas with the Annapurna range looking down on it but with the skyline dominated by the slightly smaller but closer Machupuchre (Fishtail Mountain).
Dipak would be picking us up at 5:15 the following morning to go and watch the sunrise over the Annapurna range from Sarangkot but before then there was a lake to explore. We paid for a boat that afternoon and this took us halfway up the lake to a small island with a temple on it. Quite an attraction for locals and the few tourists that were about, the island was quite busy but worth a brief stop before our boatman rowed us back to the lodge. The noise coming from those visiting the island was in stark contrast to the general environment and as we slowly made our way back down the lake to the hotel it was noticeable how suddenly peace had been restored. On the previous day a storm had broken in late afternoon – something fairly typical in April we were told - and some of the boats had capsized, so we were keen to do the trip and get back as early as possible to avoid something similar. As it happened the day remained fairly still and hazy but at the same time the visibility in the direction of the Himalayas wasn’t great to be honest.
The Fishtail Lodge is a lovely relaxing environment and something that we now wanted to take advantage of at the end of the trip so when we met up with Dipak early the following morning and he explained the itinerary for the day and we agreed that with everything so close together we could see it all before breakfast and thus have the entire day by the pool. Buddish (in Kathmandu) had already told us that the sightseeing in Pokhara would take two hours maximum and so it proved. We reached Sarangkot before 6 a.m. and acquired best seats on the terrace for the view across to Annapurna’s 1 to 4 plus Machupuchre. Gradually, the skyline lit up and the range came into view and it was then just a simple matter of taking in the view and watching it change with the light as the sun appeared over the ridge. More photos, move on.
A quick tour of Pokhara town revealed a comfortably populated, neat little town in a lovely location in the valley with decent facilities and a Tibetan refugee community residing in their own camp. We visited Devi’s Fall, Mahendra Cave and also Bindhyabasubu Temple. Devi’s Fall and Mahendra Cave were on opposite sides of the main high street in the centre of town. We were in the dry season so Devi’s Fall wasn’t falling too rapidly. In fact it was almost totally dry but the shapes carved in the rocks by the water in the rainy season were amazing and gave an indication of the power of the water when in full flow. From Devi’s Fall, the water travels underground again, literally under the main road, and appears across the road in Mahendra Cave. Inside the cave the air is very humid as you descend to the lowest point where you can see through to daylight at Devi’s Fall.
Bindhyabasubu Temple was the next and final stop. Basically this was another small temple in the centre of town but a very active one with queues waiting to make offerings to Shiva as a very pungent incense filled the air. These were by now common sights for us on this trip so the real highlight here was the terrific view across town and down through the valley towards the snow-capped Himalayas. Then, it was back in the car for the drive back to the lodge. On route Dipak showed us a bit more of the town including the Tibetan Refugee Camp and some of the oldest houses that have so far escaped modernisation.
As planned we were back at Fishtail Lodge in time for breakfast and already you could tell that it was going to be a hot, sunny day and the prospect of doing absolutely nothing for almost the first time in three weeks was perfect. By late afternoon we had had enough sun. We could also see clouds rolling in and before long the sky was a blend of grey and black and stormy. The occasional flash of lightning was quickly followed by thunder as the clouds did battle around the valley. We had almost no rain but watched it all happen over the Himalayas and, apart from dinner, the day was effectively over but the benefit of the storm was spectacularly there to see when we woke up the next morning. The sky was cloudless and for the first time we had a clear view from our room of the Himalayas. We grabbed one of the last outside tables for breakfast and enjoyed the view for the one and only time. It was a great way to end our stay.
Within the hour we were back at Pokhara Airport and boarding the flight back to Kathmandu. Again, the storm had done us a favour and we took Buddish’s advice and got seats on the left hand side of the plane towards the back for outstanding views of the mountain range on the 25 minute flight back to the Nepali capital.
Buddish was there to meet us (on his day off) with our main luggage and we went for a coffee with him before saying our farewells and flying back to Delhi. Tomorrow we would be heading home and leaving behind the difficult but fascinating country that is India where everything seems to be in extremes and Nepal, the quieter neighbour next door where life and the people are slightly less frantic.