Note: The main focus of this blog is my thirteen months in Bangladesh. I am moving posts relating to travel (outside Bangladesh) to the end of the blog.
I had long dreamt of travelling in Himalayan country and so this was a much anticipated journey, all the more so for having come here from Bangladesh. People talk about taking a couple of days to ‘unwind’ on holiday: I hadn’t realised, until I arrived, just how tightly ‘wound’ I was! There is something strangely oppressive about living in Bangladesh: I feel as though I have been in a pressure-cooker. It’s difficult to explain this adequately and it was only when I left that I recognised it.
It took me a while therefore to ‘adjust’. After Dhaka, Kathmandu (with a population of 1.5 million) didn’t seem too busy or chaotic a place to me. The initial glaring difference was the impact of tourism. And at first it was this that I found difficult to cope with. There were so many tourists, so many white people, streaming western music, packed cafés and pubs, public displays of affection, the eclectic mixture of dress codes, tourist shops, etc. I even felt slightly odd and exposed walking around in western clothes. But it wasn’t long before I relaxed and fell under the spell of Kathmandu. It felt good to be able to socialise freely again (I’d forgotten what it felt like to enjoy a night in a pub, listen to live music, engage in flirtatious banter, etc.) and to be able to walk down the street without being stared at. (I would add here though that when I returned to Bangladesh from this trip it felt really good to be ‘home’ too. I was struck all over again by the authenticity of my experiences and the genuineness of the people in the absence of the impacts of tourism.) For now though I was in holiday mode: back on the hippie, happy, huggy travel-trail and it felt incredibly good.
Like Bangladesh, Nepal is a ‘poor’ country and despite its flourishing tourism industry, 40% of its 30 million people live in poverty. GNI PPP, per capita for 2009 was $1180 – the figure for Bangladesh was $1580. (See post 8 for explanation.) In relation to the United Nations 2010 Human Development Index, Nepal ranked 138th out of 169 countries and like Bangladesh – at the higher position of 129th – was in the ‘low development group’. (See post 30 for clarification.) Nepal is also susceptible to natural disasters e.g. floods and landslides. The poorest and hardest hit conflict regions, such as the mid-western area, have a poverty incidence that is almost 20% higher than the central region. While tourism is important and contributes around 10% of GDP and jobs, agriculture is the mainstay of the economy, providing a livelihood for 75% of the population. Exports from industrial activity include carpets, clothing, leather goods, jute products, grain and electricity. Nepal depends heavily on its relationship with India, its largest trading partner.
The country has suffered from political instability due to a long running battle between monarchists and Maoists. Following the recently ended civil war, the political situation is still fragile and there are many issues that need to be resolved. (See for example the documentary Returned about Nepalese child soldiers’ attempts to reintegrate after association with armed Maoist groups.) For a general overview see the BBC profile which includes a timeline, key facts and some interesting articles. Hinduism is the main religion with over 81% adherents. The remaining 20% are mostly Buddhist (11%) with smaller percentages of Muslims (4%), Mundhum (4%) and Christians (0.5%), amongst others. Just 49% of the population speaks Nepali as a first language and there are significant populations of ethnic groups speaking other languages (e.g. Maithali, Bhojpuri, Tharu, Tamang and others.) There are approximately 15,000 Tibetan exiles living (and established) in Nepal, mostly in Boudhanath in Kathmandu (see below). Nepal also has a number of UNHCR refugee camps for Bhutan’s ethnic Nepalese community who fled persecution there (see post 61).
Nepal was never colonised and has a rich artistic and architectural heritage. The Himalayas’ most sophisticated urban cultures took shape in the three great Newar mini-kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley – Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. The architecture, created by skilled Newari craftsmen, is a fusion of Indian and Tibetan influences, and is today protected as part of the Kathmandu Valley collection of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
For many though, it is the heavenly Himalayas, which provide a backdrop to this landlocked country wedged between China and India, which contribute most to the country’s romantic image. However, this dramatic topography also contributes to the country’s susceptibility to climate change. Despite contributing very little to damaging greenhouse gases, Nepal has experienced some of the fastest long-term increases in temperatures and rainfall anywhere in the world. Incidences of flash flooding and glacial lake outbursts have become more frequent. In a predominantly agricultural country, these changes in temperature and rainfall have had very real repercussions for crop yields. Water-flows downstream of rivers that rise in the Himalayas are at particular risk if climate change accelerates (see post 60). Changing landscapes also affect the habitats of certain wild animals e.g. that of the already endangered and rarely seen snow leopard, an animal that appears in Buddhist lore and legend throughout the Himalayas. (In Tibet and Bhutan I saw many frescoes of flying snow leopards ferrying prophets and holy men hither and thither.)
My relatively short time in Nepal was divided between the Kathmandu Valley and the Himalayan Mountains north of Pokhara. I could probably have ‘seen’ more, but I wanted to enjoy the slower pace of travel for travel’s sake too. For similar reasons I didn’t write every day either. Consequently my notes are scanty and on this occasion I have decided to take a philistine approach to travel writing and present the story of my journey as a series of ‘highlights’.
Kathmandu Valley highlights:
- Flying into Kathmandu and seeing green mountains, terraces and valleys and realising how much I had missed seeing hills and vales.
- Enjoying the sense of freedom and discovery that come with travelling.
- Meeting up with Charlotte and Sanneke.
- Socialising and feeling happy; talking, laughing and just ‘hanging out’.
- Revelling in the choice of atmospheric bars, cafés and restaurants.
- Discovering bohemian havens that brought back memories of similar travellers’ haunts from journeys past.
- Wandering through the narrow streets and bazaars of Kathmandu.
- Enjoying the shamelessly, touristy atmosphere of Thamel.
- Buying Ali Baba pants and other slightly questionable items.
- Browsing in book shops – loving the books on Newar art and architecture.
- Chatting to fellow guests and admiring the view from the rooftop garden of the Norling Hotel.
- Spending a day in colourful, bustling Durbar (Palace) Square, part of the Kathmandu Valley collection of UNESCO World Heritage sites, and being amazed by the Newar architecture and history dating from the 12th century.
2. Swayambhunath Temple: A UNESCO World Heritage Site
- Passing a memorable day in the towering Buddhist complex of Swayambhunath, situated on top of a hill, reached by a steep flight of stone steps.
- Walking there and back from Thamel in Kathmandu and passing lots of smaller Hindu and Buddhist temples and shrines en route.
- Wandering around the giant stupa and the many temples and monuments that surround it.
- Watching the mischievous monkeys that live in and around the complex.
- Eating delicious lemon pancakes in good company in a rooftop café on the hill, while watching the sun set over Kathmandu Valley.
- Walking back through ‘non-touristy’ parts of Kathmandu and coming across dimly-lit scenes at night bazaars and tea stalls.
3. Boudhanath (Bodhnath): A UNESCO World Heritage Site
- Staying in the Schechen Guest House and being mesmerised by the sights, sounds and colours of the vibrant Tibetan culture at the Buddhist Schechen Monastery next door.
- Marvelling at the nearby giant, white stupa replete with colourful prayer flags strung from its highest point.
- Wandering around the surrounding village which is home to a community of Tibetan exiles (said to number around 15,000) who fled here after the unsuccessful rising against the Chinese in 1959.
- Browsing through artwork while being hypnotised by the sounds of Om Mane Padme Hum in the shops around the stupa.
- Joining pilgrims for a couple of circuits in their worshipful circumambulation of the stupa, amidst twirling prayer wheels, swinging beads and mumbled mantras.
- Listening to monks chanting in a small chapel at the base of the stupa.
- Watching the sun set spectacularly over the entire scene from a lovely rooftop café, after all the tour buses had left.
‘Were there nothing else in Nepal, save the Durbar Square of Bhatgaon (Bhaktapur), it would still be amply worth making a journey half-way round the globe to see’. [E.A. Powell from The Last Home of Mystery, 1929]
- Journeying, with Charlotte and Sanneke, by local bus to Bhaktapur, the third and smallest major historic city of the Kathmandu Valley (along with Kathmandu and Patan).
- Absorbing the history, culture and architecture of Bhaktapur – once a Newar kingdom with buildings dating from the 12th century.
- Wandering through the timeless, traffic-free, cobblestoned streets replete with shrines and stone wells and ornate water tanks.
- Eating delicious street food while watching a group of men playing a pavement game that involved sticks and stones.
- Browsing in small, local shops full of bindis and bracelets, trying on Nepalese hats and buying lovely, hand-made paper.
- Arriving unexpectedly in beautiful squares lined with stunning buildings and monuments.
- Climbing up a rickety wooden staircase in the five-tiered, tallest pagoda in Nepal – the Nyatapola – where there is a gorgeous café with balcony seating overlooking Taumadhi Square below.
- Watching children flying colourful kites.
- Discovering that the pagoda was perfected in Nepal and introduced from here to China.
- Finding out that much of Bertolucci’s Little Buddha was shot in Bhaktapur (and Kathmandu).
- Reading that Bhaktapur means ‘City of Devotees’ in Newari and is shaped like a conch shell. (I had read about the symbolism of the conch shell in Hinduism in Puthia in Bangladesh.)
- Standing in the middle of the most impressive of Bhaktapur’s squares – Durbar Square, referred to in the quote above, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site – surrounded by the largest and most dramatic collection of monuments, temples and pagodas that I have ever seen crowded together in one place.
- Watching the sun set over Durbar Square from yet another rooftop café.
- Finding the famous Bhaktapur curd shops and enjoying the delicious curd that lives up to its reputation.
- Feeling optimistic about how Nepal’s heritage is being managed (in comparison to that of Bangladesh).
Highlights from Pokhara and the Himalayas:
- The journey from Kathmandu to Pokhara along the stunning Prithvi Highway (though wishing I had time to stop off and explore en route).
- Glimpsing village life from the bus amidst dramatic ravines, mountains, valleys and rivers.
- Watching the snow-capped, high Himalaya drift tantalisingly in and out of cloud cover.
- Enjoying the scenes around glittering Phewa Lake, set against the backdrop of the mountains.
- Taking a boat trip to the Barahi Hindu temple on an island in the lake, where there were many ‘holy men’ in dreadlocks dressed in bright orange and yellow robes.
- Enjoying the bohemian vibe in the touristy part of town.
My route: Pokhara (The Raraa Hotel, 2690ft or 820m) – Nayapul – Birethanti – Tikhedhunga (Laxmi Guest House, 5174ft or 1577m) – Ulleri – Banthanti – Nangethanti – Ghorepani (The Sunny Hotel, 9368ft or 2855m) – Poon Hill – Deurali – Banthanti – Tadapani (The Fishtail Viewtop Lodge 8793ft or 2680m) – Ghandruk (The Annapurna Hotel, 6306ft or 1922m) – Landruk – Tolkha – Pothana (The See You Hotel, 6496ft or 1980m) – Dhampus – Phedi – Pokhara (The Raraa Hotel, 2690ft or 820m).
- Six days of exhilarating walking in sublime mountain scenery in the Annapurna region of the Himalaya Mountains north of Pokhara.
- Walking along meandering, grass paths and medieval-looking, steep, staircases of stone steps.
- Frequently standing to stare in inarticulate wonder, dwarfed by my majestic surroundings.
- Feeling surprisingly fit and energetic and possessed of an overwhelming joie de vivre.
- Walking through villages as beautiful as any hill villages I have seen in Europe.
- Enjoying the periodic shade of cool, wooded, slopes peppered with fast-flowing rivers and tumbling, sparkling waterfalls.
- Staring down steep, terraced, cultivated slopes cascading terrace-by-terrace to luxuriantly green valleys below.
- Seeing meadows of wild flowers stretching towards the snowline.
- Admiring simple farmhouses, some of solid stone, others timber-framed, all with shuttered windows – but no glass.
- Seeing goats, cows and the occasional water-buffalo housed in the lower levels of farmhouses.
- Charmed by scenes splashed with the colour and scent of rhododendron, honeysuckle, frangipani, fuchsia, poinsettia, and hosts of other flowers.
- Laughing with Deepak and Denis, my guide and porter.
- Sharing stories with many of the same walkers night after night in the picturesque, restful villages along the route.
- Sitting around pot-bellied stoves, soaking up their welcoming warmth, after an exhilarating day of walking.
- Crossing clear, fast-rushing rivers and streams on bridges of stone, wood and steel – some fixed, some suspended.
- Passing villagers – men and women – on paths, carrying huge loads on their backs in bamboo, cone-shaped baskets, called doko, attached to headbands worn around their foreheads.
- Stopping to sit and eat in warm sunshine in sociable ‘hotels’ along the route, surrounded by flowers and butterflies and dry stone walls, as a steady stream of walkers came and went.
- Chatting (through Deepak) to beautiful children in villages along the route.
- Running into pack horses and donkeys wearing tinkling bells and navigating stone steps, carrying goods between villages in the absence of roads.
- Getting to know so many truly, lovely people along the route: Denis and Deepak – who looked after me so well; Charlotte and Sanneke from the Netherlands; Santos from Nepal; Ly and Olejakob from Norway; Joseph and Patrick, two brothers from the UK; Bonnie from China; Egmont from Germany (now living in the US); ‘Johnson’ from China; Lee and Lindsay from Huddersfield, and many more.
- Waiting for the cloud-cover to dissipate, or burn off, to reveal the long, irregular, snow-capped ramparts of the Annapurna Ridge framing the distance.
- Being utterly thrilled by sightings of the rocky slopes of the shapely, sacred Machhapuchhre (Fish Tail) (22,956ft or 6997m), the chunky bulk of Annapurna South (23,684ft or 7219m) and its extension Hiunchuli (21,132ft or 6441m), three of my constant companions defining the horizons and the boundaries of my adventures.
My journey to Nepal turned out to be a wonderfully enjoyable experience. Of course I only saw a fraction of the country – and from a tourist perspective at that. There were times when I felt deeply conflicted in relation to this tourist gaze, knowing of the many pressing development issues, and the fragile political situation. Living in Bangladesh, immersed in such issues every day, heightens my awareness, but equally, also necessitates a break, and I needed this ‘travel experience’ in order to recharge my batteries. I missed not having any language facility in the mountains – apart from Namaste! It (re)emphasises the importance of my Bangla – limited though it is – and the way in which it enriches my experiences in Bangladesh. I didn’t get a chance to read much in preparation for this trip either – apart from travel guides. I always find that reading relevant literature before and during travel not only orients me, but also augments my new surroundings by providing additional sensory experiences. However, although I tried, I failed to get my hands on Samrat Upadhay’s novels. I had vivid memories though of the panoramas and people depicted in the academy award-winning film Himalaya that I had seen some years back, though on this occasion I didn’t get to that more remote part of the country. Many years ago, I read The Waiting Land by Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy, an account of her time in Nepal, but I would need to dig it out and re-read it. A lot can be lost in 20 years! While travel literature features on my reading list, I would love to find more contemporary Nepalese literature.
Although my time in Nepal was limited, it has provided me with an introduction to the country. I got a feel for the rich history of the sophisticated urban culture that developed in the Kathmandu Valley, through my visits to the architecturally stunning mini-kingdoms of Kathmandu and Bhaktapur. I experienced the richness and vibrancy of Buddhist culture in Boudhanath and Swayambhunath – though, unfortunately, I missed some equally important Hindu centres. (I find it fascinating how Buddhism and Hinduism have coexisted and sometimes mingled in interesting ways, influencing Nepalese culture.) I unashamedly enjoyed the trappings of tourism in modern Kathmandu and in Pokhara. The Himalayas gripped me – mind, body and spirit – and I didn’t want my time amongst the peaks and the atmospheric mountain villages to end. Deepak, my guide, told me that I should have chosen a longer Annapurna circuit because the Ghorepani trail didn’t ‘stretch’ me. While it is true that I could have walked further and for much longer each day, I wouldn’t change a thing (although maybe I could have done without the two wet days and the clinging leeches). Trekking enthusiasts would probably find this route too popular/commercialised, but I enjoyed the social aspect and the villages along the route. It was a good introduction and right for me at this time: maybe next time I might try a more challenging trek. Finally, I met a lot of fine people and made many new friends, some of whom I hope to stay in touch with. Will I be back? I hope so. I would love to do more walking, attend a festival or two and wander off the beaten track at a slower pace. As the Nepalese tourist logo goes: Once is not enough!
I’m including some photographs from my trip. I took so many that it’s almost impossible to choose. (Unfortunately, since Cooliris was acquired by Yahoo my lovely photo walls no longer work :(. I have replaced them with links to post-specific web-album slideshows until such time as I can find a better solution.)
Click on image below for PHOTO SLIDESHOW related to this post (254 photographs in all). Enjoy!
There are a few more photographs from Nepal at the beginning and end of the photographs at post 60 i.e. the road trip between Kathmandu and Kodari and the flight back to Kathmandu from Lhasa. For now though this is the end of my chronicles from Kathmandu and Nepal. Namaste!