Nepal: Standing at the gates of heaven
Published 25/08/2014 | 02:30
The air is different. You notice it immediately. It's rarefied, finer, invigorating; it has a sense of the divine about it. Breathe and your chakras give a blissful little shudder. It's Nepal: home of the legendary Gurkhas, Everest and Annapurna, and birthplace of Buddha.
The 6km journey from Tribhuvan International to the Soaltee Crowne Plaza gives a first glimpse into daily life. Rutted, potholed roads are flanked with masses of dangling wires, strung from skewed poles buckling under the weight of the cables they endeavour to support. Power outages are frequent; without warning, the entire Kathmandu valley can be pitched into blackness. The traffic is chaotic, with buses, cars, cows and motorbikes all vying for road space. The law requires only motorbike drivers to wear a helmet, so it's common to see bareheaded women and children riding pillion, sometimes five deep, amid the lunatic traffic.
The Soaltee is an oasis of calm amid the craziness of Kathmandu. It has an outdoor swimming pool from which you can gaze up at the majestic Himalayas, and four restaurants, along with a bar and lounge. Once settled, our first stop was the Garden Terrace restaurant to sample some authentic Nepali cuisine and down a few Gorkhas. Daal bhat tarkari is a traditional dish - daal being a lentil soup; bhat, boiled grains and tarkari is essentially a vegetable curry. Momo, a type of stuffed dumpling, is synonymous with Nepal, and very moreish indeed! Desserts are also a delight, from gajar ko halwa (carrot pudding) to kheer (rice pudding) and, my favourite, sel roti (crispy rice doughnuts).
Next morning, first stop was Swayambhunath, or Monkey Temple. The magnificent stupa (Buddhist shrine), venerated by Hindus and Buddihsts, is set high on a hill that is reputed to have 'self-arisen' (swayambhu) from the waters of a lake that once covered the area. As you climb the 365 steps to the stupa, inquisitive monkeys clamber alongside, their babies clinging on for dear life. The sweet chanting of 'Om Mani Padme Hum' a Tibetan Buddhist mantra that echoes throughout Nepal, drifts down the hilltop, getting louder with the ascent, as we finally come face to face with the massive, white-painted stupa that bears the all-seeing eyes of Buddha. Lines of multi-coloured prayer flags spoke out from the gilded pinnacle, and at the circular base are little prayer wheels, also bearing the these - in a clockwise direction only, mind; counterclockwise is reserved for advanced practitioners - bestows a benefit to the spinner. There are little shops and shrines circling the stupa, and butter lamps and flower offerings everywhere. Despite the proliferation of tourists, an atmosphere of reverence pervades what is one of the oldest and most enigmatic holy shrines in Nepal.
Next, it's on to Kathmandu's Durbar Square, also a Unesco World Heritage site. It's a complex of temples and shrines, both Buddhist and Hindu. Until the early 20th Century, this area was home to the King - Nepal, home to 27m people, was a monarchy until 1990, when it became a constitutional monarchy. In 2001, a bizarre series of events occurred that caused a sensation - and riots. Crown Prince Dipendra, aka 'Dippy', enraged at his parents who had refused his request to marry a local aristocrat, and drunk on The Famous Grouse scotch, shot them and seven other royals using a sub-machine gun, then used a Glock pistol to unsuccessfully kill himself. Dippy apparently kicked his father, the King, after he had shot him, an act that arguably caused more shock in Nepalese society than the killing itself. Dippy was proclaimed King while in a coma but he died after a three-day reign. His uncle became King, but in 2008 the monarchy was abolished and a Federal Democratic Republic was declared.
In Durbar Square, we get our tikkas (the red dot on the forehead; a blessing) at Mahendreswor Temple, which was built in 1562 and is dedicated to Shiva. You could spend days wandering around the innumerable beautiful pagoda-like temples, palaces and shrines. A maze of little streets and squares, the Durbar Square area was built between the 12th and 18th Centuries.
Perhaps one of the most extraordinary things you are ever likely to encounter is here, in the Kumari-ghar: a living goddess. From the ancient quadrangle, a latticed, intricately carved window is visible a few stories up. You can feel the crowd mentally willing Matina Shakya, the current Kumari (virgin) to appear. There's a sudden hush, and there she is: a child in ornate red robes, her dark, kohl-rimmed eyes looking haughtily down. Her feet are never allowed touch the ground; if she goes outside, she is carried.
To become a living goddess, she must fulfil a number of criteria, including having eyelashes like a cow, thighs like a deer and a voice as soft and clear as a duck. She also must undergo tests, including a night surrounded by ritually severed animal heads, without showing any fear. Once crowned, if she sheds any blood or once her period starts, it is thought that the goddess deity leaves her body and she becomes a commoner again. The transition is difficult, but as our guide explains, goddesses these days are allowed to watch cartoons and are given an education, so find it somewhat easier to return to their village and normal life.
It's difficult to top a living goddess, but Nepal is abundant in singular experiences. Pashupathinath Temple on the banks of the Bagmati, 3km north of Kathmandu, is dedicated to Pashupathi, Lord of the Animals. The temple, which contains the sacred phallic symbols of Shiva, dates back to 400AD, is an important Hindu pilgrimage site. Entry is barred to non-Hindus, but the view from the far side of the river is sufficiently fascinating.
Outlandishly dressed saddhus (holy men) sit along the bank. One beckons as we walk past; holy he may be, but it's money he's after. Avoiding him and the ubiquitous cows and monkeys, we walk along the bank, eyeing the ghats (steps) lining the far side.
The Bagmati is a sacred river, and many who cannot afford to travel to the Ganges in Varanasi to cremate their dead, come here. There are now controversial plans to build an electric crematorium to stem the pollution that results from the daily cremations.
The aroma of sandalwood and ash hang thick in the air as we come to a crowd gathering on the bridge. Down below, no more than ten feet away, is a man busily preparing a body, perhaps his father, for cremation. He pulls and drags it, the effort clearly visible on his face as he struggles to remove a plastic sheet, and then winds the white cloth around the corpse, leaving the head visible, tucking in butter lamps here and there so that the cremation fire will take hold once lit. I feel I'm intruding on this man's private grief, and as the clicking of cameras mixes with the first crackles of the cremation fire, I walk away, a bit raw from the realness of it all.
The next day, it's up early for a flight over Everest, for anyone who wants to go. Despite two attempts, Sagarmatha (Head of the Sky) does not deign to show herself. The disappointment is tempered a little by the fact that there's no charge for a no-show.
It's on to Bodhnath, the site of the largest stupa in Nepal. The stupa here is colossal; built in 600AD, it's said to house bones from Buddha's skeleton, and its physical structure is symbolic of Buddha's path to enlightenment. The plinth is the earth, the dome is water, the tower is fire, the spire is air and the top represents the void. The dome of the structure is so big that it's possible to climb up and walk around on it, underneath the multitude of fluttering prayer flags.
Lunch is a tasty affair in the Boudha Kitchen, under the watchful eyes of the stupa. Fed and watered - we try raksi, a traditional alcoholic drink make from rice that tastes a little like saki - we head to a tanka painting school. Tankas are exquisitely detailed paintings that usually depict a Buddhist deity, scene or mandala. They are traditionally painted with very fine brushes made from three hairs of a cat's tail and require immense skill and concentration to complete. Prices vary depending on the skill level of the artist, but haggling is expected and welcomed.
Our final day in Nepal is spent in the ancient city of Bhaktapur, which lies on an ancient trade route between Tibet and India, and is one of three royal cities in Nepal. No cars are allowed in, and to enter through the gates is to step back in time. 25,000 live here and many live without any modern conveniences; women still haul water from 30-foot-deep wells for daily use. The city was founded in the 12th Century and partly destroyed in 1934 by an earthquake. Despite this, much of Bhaktapur is perfectly preserved and has remained unchanged throughout the centuries.
We dined in the Palace Restaurant, overlooking Lion's Gate, in the Square. It has two exquisite stone statues of Hindu deities on either side, and legend has it that once the artisans finished, the King cut off their hands so they couldn't reproduce such beautiful work for another. There is so much to see here: in Pottery Square, vessels are thrown and fired in traditional manner, while Vatsala Temple has a bell that sounds like a dog barking and is believed to be a death knell. (No one was brave enough!) Shiva Parvati Temple has stone elephants copulating in the missionary position, while Nyatapola Temple is a five-storied pagoda, the highest in Nepal, with breathtakingly intricate carvings and stonework.
Having come from Delhi, we left Nepal the next morning to journey on to the holy Indian city of Varanasi, which held the promise of its own particular delights, but the tinkle of prayer bells and the pulsing hum of Om Mani Padme Hum was to linger long after we left the land of the Himalayas far, far behind.
Fly over Everest
Everest. You have to do it. Even though we flew over twice, on two separate days and were unsuccessful, it was still a thrill knowing you were near Chomolungma (the Tibetan name, meaning Mother Goddess of the Universe) and unless you’re very unlucky, you will get to see other peaks in the majestic Himalayas. The trip is weather-dependent, but even if conditions are good on take-off, things can change very quickly in the mountains. The trip, on Yeti Airlines, takes about an hour and costs about €150.
Pottery square in Bhaktapur is a must-see. There are actually two; the first, Suryamadhi, is to the east of Dattatreya Temple and Square. It is the oldest square and good for buying big pots. The other, Talako, is just south of Durbar Square and has a great selection of small vessels, which are more easily transportable. You can see the entire pottery process as it has been practised for centuries from start to finish; the clay is beaten and the pot is cast, left in the sun to dry, and then fired in the wood-fired kilns.
Tankas and Yak Wool
Souvenirs are often tacky, but not so in Nepal. There’s gorgeous costume jewellery made from semi-precious stones and animal bones and horns; Bhaktapur is particularly good. Tanka paintings can cost an arm and a leg, but small ones are available at reasonable prices ($50) or buy from a less skilled artist. Boudnath has many shops in the vicinity of the stupa that sell beautiful scarves made of yak wool, which is deliciously soft. You can get a hand-appliqued yak-wool scarf for as little as $25.
Gemma travelled to Nepal as part of Insight Vacations’ Classical India with Nepal tour, which starts from €2,715pp and operates year round, with the exception of May-July. It is featured in Insight’s Exotics Collection brochure, which includes tours in Bhutan and Sri Lanka.
The trip price includes: airport arrival and departure transfers, baggage handling; hotel and restaurant tips; one-way domestic flights from Delhi-Kathmandu, Kathmandu-Varanasi and Varanasi-Khajuraho; 12 nights in luxury hotel accommodation, including the Fairmont in Jaipur; a welcome reception with drinks and welcome dinner; 12 buffet breakfasts, 3 highlight lunches; afternoon tea and a celebration dinner. Guests are escorted by one of Insight’s expert tour directors; modern, air-conditioned luxury touring coaches and minibuses are provided throughout the tour.