River deep, mountain high, forest green
‘Top of the world’: make this state of mind your next holiday destination and follow the dream of mountainous subtropical climate, with its lush valleys on the backdrop of snow-capped peaks. Not just for climbers and trekkers, the Himalaya and its foothills unlock their treasure of colours and flavours to the discerning tourist chasing the legend of Shangri-La, the fabled city of long-lasting youth and the land where earth and sky touch and the gods dwell.
And if you cannot find Shangri-La on Google Maps, book your plane ticket to Nepal, the next best thing!
Nepal is the landlocked country sandwiched between India and China that stretches across the Himalaya range, and includes the world’s highest mountains, i.e. Mount Everest and the Annapurna Massif, inhospitable blizzard-swept peaks sloping down gently through the monsoon forests, towards green hills patiently terraced by centuries of agriculture to yield rice harvest staple food to the population of hamlets and metropolises dotting the plateau.
For its geographical location, the Nepalese capital Kathmandu in the shadow of the Langtang National Park is your first port of call when landing with European flights, before proceeding to climbing expeditions, or exploring the several conservation parks that bless this newborn federal republic that celebrated its tenth anniversary in May and a new constitution in 2015.
The country is still recovering from a civil war and a dark political climate responsible for thousands of deaths, including the royal family massacre in 2001, leading to a failed attempt to restore absolute power to the crown and eventually ending Nepal’s status as Hindu Kingdom and declaring it a secular federal republic in 2015.
However, on 25th April 2015 a devastating earthquake reduced the capital’s eponymous landmark Kasthamandap (meaning ‘shelter of wood’) to a pile of rubble. The three-storey pagoda was built entirely out of timber from a single tree at the end of the 16th century, and some say, without using any nails.
The capital is also known as Kantipur, city of light, because of its luminous sky, or simply Mahanagar, grand capital.
The florid bowl-shaped valley where Kathmandu sits once was, according to legend, a huge snake-infested swamp until the wisdom Bodhisattva Manjushree brandished his flaming sword and drained all water to establish his kingdom of Manjupattan.
Irreparably damaged by the earthquake, Durbar (Royal Palace) Square still deserves a visit to soak in the atmosphere of Hindu devotion, to admire the flourished ornamentation of architecture and sculpture and the seething of a varied population, with its scents and flavours, of incense and spice, tea, and street food.
Durbar Square hosts about fifty edifices dedicated to civic or religious use. Indulge in gazing at the Kumari Ghar, residence of Kumari Devi, a divinity venerated in South-East Asia in the persona of rigorously selected toddler girls who are believed to be the visible vessel of female energy and the incarnation of the goddess. The girls enjoy a privileged yet isolated childhood until their menarche or until illness or severe loss of blood reverts them to ordinary mortal status.
With its elevation of 1,400 metres, one would expect that the rarefied oxygen is an effect of altitude but, in this modern city pulsating with a diverse lifestyle, the poor air quality is actually due to traffic and pollution. Steer clear from the main arteries and follow the winding lanes into markets and artisan shop where you can find silver jewellery, silk and woollen patchwork.
With most women still donning the traditional apparel, countless saris of exquisite facture, either embroidered or printed, are readily available as a top-market souvenir – keep in mind that 7-8 metres of hand-spun hand-woven hand-dyed hand-embroidered top-quality silk ‘don’t come cheap’, though. Glass and silver bangles, votive statuettes and flags are sold at the entrance of all temples, for tourists and local consumption alike; the brightly-coloured prayer-inscribed triangular flags are believed to carry your prayers to heaven as they flap in the crisp wind. Wind-activated prayers are a constant of Buddhist monasteries, whether in the form of ragged flags or large copper cylinders pivoted along the foreyards: as devotees give them an energetic spin on their way into the temple, the versets inscribed reverberate in the ether and soar to Buddha’s ears.
The old city pullulates with coppersmiths who craft votive statuettes of Hindu gods and Buddhist bodhisattvas. Since they break the mould after each solid metal casting, the statues are all different and original artwork, and even more precious because they are individually encrusted with coral, turquoise and other opaque stones, while their faces are gold plated and their facial features are hand painted.
Lord Shiva is regarded as the country’s guardian deity in his benevolent or fierce form so you’ll find several statuettes of Shiva, sitting or standing on the iconic lotus flower, readily available in artisans’ shops. Shiva’s fierce form is surely attractive from an artistic point of view for a Westerner, but dainty renditions of Tara, goddess of dance, also make a popular souvenir. These are quite reasonably priced, in the region of $100-$300 depending on size, gold-plated surfacing and bejewelled detail. Should you be short of change, you can still take home the fierce features of Nepal in a mask, made of hand-carved wood and brightly hand-painted with the colours of earth, sky, snow and vegetation.
Knotted carpets are a fine Nepalese export and so are wooden sculptures, especially the characteristic bas-relief used for frames and tableaux, with intricate detail of flowers and forests as background to svelte figurines crafted from a single piece of wood.
A word of advice: Nepal exercises tight controls on cooper exportation, so if you purchase any sizeable copper bangle or statuette, remember to declare it at the airport before going through security.
Considered the head of the twelve Indian shrines of the radiance of Shiva, and one of his holy abodes, this UNESCO World Heritage Site temple is where the one-metre high four-faced linga (mukhalinga) is venerated in an inner sanctum to which only four priests can gain access. The compound stands not far from Kathmandu, on the banks of River Bagmati, where ashes are dispersed after ritual cremations.
The traditional pagoda pattern is repeated with original variations here, in a constellation of stupas of all sizes, some with simple roofs and others topped with ornate metal pointed knobs. Beside the architecture, it is the human show that makes a trip here all worthwhile as you mix with pilgrims, sadhus and ascetic beggars, whose naked haggard body is often covered in ground limestone, and their forehead marked in vivacious colours.
The festival of Maha Shivaratri (Great Shiva’s night) attracts almost a million pilgrims to the temple in late winter, to celebrate the arrival of spring, and spiritually the overcoming of the darkness caused by ignorance. Pilgrims perform rites of meditation, prayer, fasting, yoga, and asking and dispensing forgiveness.
Believed to be the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, later known as Buddha, this complex (whose name means ‘lovely’) features a large temple on the site where Queen Mayadevi gave birth to the Enlightened, and the holy pond where she dipped and where she washed the newborn prince. Lumbini can be reached from Kathmandu by plane, landing at Bhairahawa’s airport and enduring a thirty-minute drive.
You cannot say you have visited Nepal if you don’t ascend the Swayamhu hillock (but perhaps not on your knees as pilgrims do) via the stairway topped by a large vajra, the double-headed diamond sceptre and guarded by two stone lions. As pilgrims reach the top before dawn, they continue their ritual journey with circumambulations! On foot, step after step, it is indeed an enlightening path towards the ‘self-created’ – this is the meaning of its name, with reference to the inextinguishable flame that flickered there to mark the location where the temple had to be built.
Never fear: an asphalted road on the other side of the hill allows motorised access, after you have negotiated your way through the swarm of brightly attired young ladies selling an array of knickknacks – and alas T-shirts with all-guise reproductions of the stupa’s iconic swirly eyes, complemented by equally swirly devanagari captions, translating something cheesy like ‘watch your step!’ or ‘look me in the eye’ – the permutations of consumerism are endless.
One of the most sacred pilgrimage spots for Buddhists and to a lesser extent for Hindus, the site is towered by the splendid domed and stupa, topped by a gilded cube painted with Buddha’s eyes and eyebrows (joined by a bright red bindi) to look over the four directions, and between them the number one in devanagari script stands for a nose. Above the eyes, a ribbed spire juts skywards, with strings of colourful flags tied to it to reach diagonally the poles of lower stupas on the square.
Around the main stupa flourish several shrines, a monastery, a library and of course restaurants and hostels. Holy monkeys inhabit the temple, fabled to be the former dwellers of Manjushree’s mane. The 1,500-year old stupa was re-gilded in 2010 with twenty kilos of gold, but Pratapur Temple was damaged by lightning and the entire complex suffered damage in the 2015 quake, with the central stupa miraculously unaffected.
Kali Gandaki Gorge
Nepal is a land of dramatic altitude contrasts and if it can boast the highest peak, it also has the deepest gorge, although the record is disputed because of different measurement criteria. Kali Gandaki Gorge used to be a trade route between India and Tibet, and now it is a popular trekking path in the Annapurna conservation park. The river yields black fossils trapped in the tectonic plates when the Indian subcontinent plaque pushed its way north into Asia (as it still does). These spiral shells are considered the abstract representation of Vishnu and are often carried by devotees.
Bhaktapur Durbar Square
Most visitors trek to this city, also known as Bhadgaon, to admire the erotic carvings on its Shiva and Parvati temple, human and elephant alike, but the main attraction remains Lu Dhowka. The golden gate, richly sculpted and topped with statues of Kali and Garuda, closely followed in fine artistry by the Palace of Fifty-Five Windows, and the Lions’ Gate so is astonishingly perfect that legend tells how the hands of the sculptors who realised it were cut off after completion, to stop them from replicating it for another king.
Historically called Patan, it is traditionally a Buddhist city but also congenial to Hinduism. It is the third largest city in Nepal and arguably the one with the richest artistic heritage, although partly destroyed by the earthquake.
Designed in the shape of the dharma chakra, the street plan is packed with religious monuments and ornate palaces, converging on Durbar Square, one of the largest in Nepal and a masterpiece of Newar style.
The main temple is dedicated to Krishna, while Bhimsen temple, dedicated to the god of business and trade, is renowned for its golden windows and for not allowing tourists inside its walls – never mind, the view from outside is breathtaking enough!
Brave the queues and visit the Royal Palace whose main feature are the courtyards, an oasis of green and ponds within the brickwork, precious with golden statues, stone friezes and bas-relief.
Don’t stop at Durbar Square, though: other landmarks are the Pim Bahal Pokhari, a lake with its pavilion, and the ruins of an almost millenary whitewashed stupa damaged by Muslim invaders. The second most important Nepalese Kumari has her official residence in the Ha Baha; and the only zoo in the entire country is also found in Patan.
Nepal is famous for its base camps for mountaineering the Annapurna, named after the goddess of provisions, and Everest, known in Nepal as Sagarmatha, and Chomolungma in Tibetan. Base camps cater for the most sophisticated alpinist supplies and experienced guides, but the climb remains dire even if approached from the easier south face, because of sudden storms and avalanches which have caused countless fatalities, many of which were never recovered. The sensible thing to do is to revere the mountain from afar acknowledging the divine dwelling, or perhaps fly over it on your way to Lhasa! You can still experience the thrill of altitude by exploring the Himalaya’s southernmost slopes, thick with vegetation, veined with waterfalls and shrouded in mist, following the dusty truck in the comfort of a modern 4×4. The villages scattered along the way offer basic shelter for the pilgrims on their way to and from Tibet – and the wild banana tree with its tiny but flavoursome fruit is a giveaway that Shangri-La cannot be too remote.
Nepalese cuisine is varied and influenced by Indian as much as Tibetan, the first favouring vegetarian spicy dishes, the second based on barley, dairy products and roots, while Newar recipes make the most of buffalo meat, cooked or raw. Parallel to the European saying that the only disposable part of the pig is the oink, every last piece of buffalo is consumed, down to the famous stuffed lungs locally named swan puka.
Dal-bhat-tarkari is the best known dish, an elaborately served soup of lentils with rice or barley and a variety of condiments. Alcohol is not very popular, unless it is chhaang, akin to beer but aromatised with herbs – and quite inebriating for Western taste. The most popular drink remains tea and it is etiquette to pour it from as high as possible, because the resulting froth in the cup bestows honour to the guest.
Kathmandu and other cities are safe places to wander around on your own, although a guide may be advisable if you don’t want to run around in circles, especially if caught in one of the early evening summer downpours: taxies are cheap albeit slow in rush-hour crazy traffic, and they remain the most convenient way to be shuttled around tourist spots without wasting time in the crowded commute.
Public transport is reliable and picturesque, and street signs almost always feature English script. Wi-Fi is readily available, so there shouldn’t be any trouble in accessing Google Maps!
Most Nepalese speak English quite fluently and you’ll have no quandaries in communicating, despite their unfamiliarity with labio-dental fricatives, so don’t be surprised should your ‘pive o’clock tea’ sets you back of the improbable sum of ‘pipty rupees’.