Jane Wright on the Nepal experience

December 1, 2010

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Jane Wright on the Nepal experience

29 Nov 2010

Pray as you go – Magical temples, spiritual retreats and terrifying bus rides.

Three things strike me as the plane descends into Kathmandu: first, that the jagged white peaks of the Himalayas stretch as far as the eye can see; second, that Nepal’s landscape is a living, breathing sculpture of lush green terraces that have been carved out of steep hillsides; and third, that the city itself is a charming, raggedy, low-rise town – no sky scrapers, no neon lights, no concrete urban sprawl. There is barely a building over six stories.

Nepal is a small rectangle of mountainous terrain sandwiched between India to the south, east and west, and Tibet to the north, and is a country suffused with the myth and shadows of the Himalayas and all the triumph and tragedy that has played out there.

It is one of the poorest countries in the world, riven by internal strife until recently when the monarchy, violently opposed by a communist Maoist movement seeking a socialist republic, was abolished. But it is also one of the most beautiful countries on earth, a magical, spiritual place where Siddartha Guatama, or Buddha, is said to have been born.

A beat-up taxi ride into town reveals a country that seems at once Indian and Hindu and Buddhist and Nepalese. The people exhibit both the round, open faces of Indians, and the finer, smaller features of Tibetans, with those beautiful almond-shaped eyes.

And like India, jewel colours abound in everything from saris to headgear to the prayer flags snapping in the wind. As the taxi weaves along small crowded streets towards Thamel, Kathmandu’s tourist hub, this small city resembles a shabby European ski resort. Throngs of puffa-jacketed mountaineers, travellers, tourists, 21st-century hippies and hawkers fill the narrow lanes, squeezing alongside the taxis and mopeds, giving it a bright, carnival atmosphere.

There are shops selling mountain gear, souvenirs, cashmere, jewellery, fakes of every description; there are massage clinics catering to all kinds of climbing aches and pains; trekking tour operators, money changers, Israeli restaurants, Thai noodle joints, pizza places, bars, clubs, cafes and bookshops. It really feels like somewhere that probably hasn’t changed that much since the sixties and seventies. It’s loud, dusty, chaotic and a fascinating place for people watching.

I head for the Yellow Guest House, up a stony lane from Paknajol, one of the main drags, the kind of guesthouse that is common in Kathmandu – clean, basic, cheap and right in the middle of things. With a roof terrace, a tidy little garden with a barbecue and a canteen downstairs, it’s the perfect place for exploring. My room, right at the top, has a big picture window with a wide clear view across the higgledy-piggledy rooftops to a magnificent temple set into a steep hillside with a stupa (temple dome) and two shikaras (towers). With its multi-coloured prayer flags fixed to the stupa like a maypole, it looks like some far-off castle sitting above a magical kingdom.

Below me is a maze of rooftop gardens and apartments. I watch a woman sitting on her roof in the sun peeling vegetables, surrounded by pots of plants. Across the way someone is hanging out washing while a child washes her long black hair in a bowl. It’s a rear window glimpse of an unfamiliar world that seems, on the surface at least, peaceful, simple, harmonious.

Kathmandu was once part of the great 1960s hippy trail that included Afghanistan and India, famous for Freak Street, where the kids would meet, hang out and get stoned on cheap local grass to “find themselves”. These days its cachet has faded, looking pretty much like any other street. For me, the real draw is Durbar Square, the religious heart of the city, with its palaces, holy shrines, intricately carved steep-stepped temples and a network of courtyards exemplifying the traditional Newari (the Nepalese of the Kathmandu Valley) way of life.

If you are lucky you may catch a glimpse of the Kumari, or “living goddess”, a young girl who is said to be the reincarnation of the Hindu mother goddess Durba. She makes an occasional appearance, standing by a window with her face carefully painted, waving to the people below. Each comes from a high Newari caste of gold and silversmiths and has to satisfy 32 stipulations from the colour of her eyes to her horoscope. If she is ever sick or bleeds, it bodes ill for the country. Hence once the girl reaches puberty, a new goddess is chosen.

West of the square is Maru Tole, the market area selling everything from pottery and musical instruments to rice and vegetables. Haggling is expected, but things are very cheap and it is always humbling to remember that this is the 12th poorest country in the world.

When the city gets a bit much, the mountains beckon and even if you’re not the kind to tackle Everest, you can still experience the majesty of the Himalayas a small further down. Kathmandu is full of eager little tour operations desperate to take you trekking, white water rafting or even just strolling around the national reserve.

I pick one that offers a three-day “tea-house” trek from Nagarkot at 2175 metres to Sundarijal and back to Kathmandu. A one-hour drive with my guide Phol sees us reach the mountain village of Nargakot in time to watch a spectacular sunset over the Langtang range of the Himalayas – including a speck-like Everest in the distance – from the roof of the hotel. A crowd has gathered in a respectful hush as the sky turns orange then pink and then suddenly it is bitterly cold.

Later, when the moon comes up, it is light enough to walk down to the village, our shadows cast on the road ahead of us. The air is filled with the scent of pine trees and jasmine. In the village the centre is thrumming with activity – women cooking over open fires, shops selling their wares, goats wandering around, people eating, drinking, talking. It’s a different, slower world, the only nod to the modern one being an internet cafe.

Next morning Phol and I are up at 5am for a 19km trek to Chisapani where our tea-house accommodation awaits. I am daunted, but the glorious views across the terracotta terraced valleys with snow-capped peaks above distract from the discomfort. And I proudly resist Phol’s insistence that he carries my rucksack. Along the way he tells me his grandfather was a Ghurka, a tradition of which is family is very proud, and he himself is hoping to join. He’s tiny but solid. Later when I look at my photographs I look like a giant Amazonian woman standing next to him.

Past farms and fields, through scrub and woodland, streams and gullies, we wend endlessly upwards. I am exhausted. Finally, we glimpse the rooftops of Chisapani which turns out to be the most bizarre little place, chickens darting around, broken-down buildings and machinery and few curious children. I spot Hotel Buddha, which turns out to be our tea-house. It’s a fairly basic place with a byre, a small shop and an eating area on the ground floor and a few rooms above, but I have never been more glad to see home. We eat a warming meal of stew, drink some very rough beer and then I go straight to bed with all my clothes on, plus some more I have brought, under a huge heavy blanket.

As we leave next morning I take a picture of some graffiti that says: “Welcome tourists to this Maoist province! Long live Marxism, Leninism and the Maoist way!” – evidence of the Communist freedom fighters who lived in the mountains for a decade. It’s entirely in keeping with this one-horse outpost with a touch of the wild west about it.

Today it’s just 12km and it’s all downhill and we cheer ourselves along, singing Nepalese and Western pop songs and talking about where we come from.

To get back to Kathmandu we have to take a bus, an experience that turns out to be more thrilling than any mountain trek. Phol waves down anything coming along the road and eventually finds a crowded bus with one seat free. There are teenagers on the roof with the luggage, swaddled in scarves. “Quick, get on, I get next one,” he says, and before I can ask him anything, the bus is off, coughing its diesel fumes. As I get to my seat right at the back, attracting curious looks and nudging, I see why it is free: there is no glass in the window. My heart sinks and I begin to put on every single piece of clothing I have on my as the wind streams in.

But soon the crazy kamikaze driver’s antics take my mind off my predicament, so hell-bent is he on swinging us round hairpin bends, leaving the back of the bus feeling like it is dangling over the edge of the void, and overtaking when any sane person would be braking.

The bus huffs and puffs up the steep inclines then freewheels down the other side with little regard for anything else on the road. The other passengers just keep talking/sleeping/playing cards, occasionally laughing at my terror. I cannot be sure I will not die today, but I’ve certainly forgotten how cold it is.

After three straight days of massages I begin to feel normal again, taking it easy, just mooching around the streets and squares. Kathmandu does a roaring trade in bookshops, particularly on the subject of Everest. Walk into any of these Aladdin’s caves and you will find aisles of books on Mallory, Hillary and their modern-day counterparts, relating tales of triumph and tragedy in equal measure. Pilgrims’ bookshop in the centre of Thamel has a cafe, a huge second-hand section and is a fine place to while away an afternoon.

But perhaps Kathmandu’s best-kept secret is the Garden of Dreams, literally an oasis in the middle of all the traffic and chaos. On the corner a busy intersection opposite the royal palace is a walled garden, so out of place and unlikely you have to pinch yourself. Once through the gate you will find a classic landscaped English garden with pavilions and follies, flowerbeds and statues and of course, a little teashop. Dreamlike and ethereal, it’s like a set straight out of The Prisoner and a delight to wander through.

On my last night, a yellow half moon hangs lopsided above the city. The lights of the Monkey Temple, or Swayambhunath to give it its proper name, are twinkling in the distance; my magical castle is mesmerising. I feel sorry to leave. Kathmandu has been an unexpected pleasure, a trove of treasures and a glimpse into a very different, disappearing world.

getting there: Emirates flies daily from Glasgow to Delhi via Dubai from around £470. Visit www.emirates.com. You can then pick up a domestic Indian flight to Kathmandu for around £120 return. Visit www.jetwairways.com.

Where to stay: The Yellow House, 16 Paknajol, Thamel, Kathmandu, has double rooms with a bathroom from around £5 per night.

Other information: For more details of trekking, climbing and white-water rafting adventures email Kul Gurung at info@gototrek.com or visit www.gototrek.com.

sourece: http://www.heraldscotland.com/life-style/travel-outdoors/jane-wright-on-the-nepal-experience-1.1071473


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