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Nepal: So much more than its mountains
A rainy season visit means fewer mountain views, but Nepali people and culture more than make up for it.
Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book “Into Thin Air” about the disastrous 1996 climbing season on Mount Everest ignited my interest in Nepal.
The Himalayan country of about 30 million people isn’t on many travel itineraries — unless you’re a climber — because it’s a little harder to get to than some other South Asian destinations.
But once you get to Nepal, you feel like the luckiest person alive to visit such a vibrant, beautiful and resilient country.
I went to Nepal to help facilitate a training program for journalists from India and Pakistan to come together to develop cross-border reporting projects on topics including health care, business, the environment and agriculture.
We landed in Kathmandu Sept. 2, at the tail end of the monsoon season. The pervasive clouds screened off our views of Mount Everest, or Sagarmatha. We also did not get to see Machapuchare, the fishtail shaped peak of the Annapurna range.
But as fellow trainer, Sara Shipley Hiles, a University of Missouri journalism professor, said, it was a good exercise in faith. We could not see the peaks, but we trusted they were there.
Instead of looking up, we immersed ourselves in seeing the sights and meeting the people of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capitol city, and Pokhara, a popular lakeside vacation town in western Nepal.
Kathmandu Valley, which includes Kathmandu City, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur, is Nepal’s largest urban area with more than 3 million people. Just go out on the street during “office time” — what we’d call rush hour — and you’ll feel the rush as cars, buses and thousands of mopeds fill the streets.
Mopeds are the ultimate ride-share in Kathmandu, with people hauling children, books and even a window frame between their bodies.
We stayed at the Hotel Himalaya, a tranquil nest in the noisy city. A short walk away was Patan Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site full of temples, shrines and statues, as well as the ancient royal palace where the Malla Kings of Lalitpur lived.
The 2015 earthquake that killed 9,000 people and damaged more than 600,000 structures in Nepal, according to Britannica.com, took a heavy toll on Patan Durbar Square, where some ancient buildings still sit in piles. But a sign we saw showed photos of craftspeople hired to restore one building to its original glory.
The alleys and narrow streets around the square are full of vendors selling colorful sari, sandals, scarves, strings of beads and singing bowls, which create a prolonged ringing sound when you circle the inside of the bowl with a wooden mallet.
The U.S. Dollar was worth about 126 Nepali rupees when we visited and you can buy many lovely items for less than 500 rupees. For me, unfamiliar with the currency, breaking a 1000-rupee bill seemed daunting until you realize it’s less than $8 U.S.
Patan Durbar Square also has some examples of hiti, traditional stone fountains that bring groundwater to the surface. These Indigenous methods for conserving and sharing clean water are getting new attention in South Asia amid climate change.
Food and worship
Another must-see in Kathmandu was the Chandrigiri Hills, which we reached by riding 1.5 miles up in a shiny red sky tram. We made halting conversation with Indian tourists on the way up and down, with three men telling us they were from Gujarat, the home state of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
At the top of Chandrigiri, 8,000 feet above sea level, the air was noticeably thinner. Maybe it was the thin air that made me so ravenously hungry. We order fried noodles from a stand and devoured our meals while people watching.
Then we visited the Bhaleshwor Mahadev temple, sliding off our shoes to show respect for the Hindus worshipping there. Visitors lit candles, received blessings from a priest and some women whispered — I presume prayers — in the ear of a golden cow.
Thamel Bazar is to Nepal as Westport is to Kansas City, the Loop is to Chicago or Uptown is to Minneapolis. The streets are full of bars, restaurants and stores that stay open late to capture all the local and foreign dollars. I picked up some hand-felted slippers and chair pads before we ate some really good pizza.
Lest you think we ate like Americans the whole trip, we had other meals of momo, round dumplings filled with meat or veg, dal and rice and one memorable dinner of buffalo meats, including lung, brain and intestine stuffed with bone marrow. Many meals were accompanied by Gorkha beer, brewed in Nepal.
When the journalism training was over and we said goodbye to our new friends from Pakistan and India, I flew with Shipley Hiles and Laura Ungar, an Associated Press reporter who also helped with training, to Pokhara, a city of 458,000 that is six hours (or more) by road or 30 minutes by plane. At $160 for a round-trip ticket, it was worth flying it because I only had about 48 hours before my return flight to Iowa.
The Buddha Air flight taxied into a tiny, picturesque airport, where Shiva Adhikari, a Pokhara-based guide, met us with his young daughter.
They gave us khada, traditional scarves used on ceremonial occasions, such as birthdays, graduations or the arrival of guests. That kind and unexpected gesture set the tone for this brief, but soul-satisfying visit.
We stayed in Lakeside, a part of Pokhara so named because it’s located on the west side of Phewa Lake.
The first night we were there, we took a rowboat ride across the lake to the Tal Barahi Temple, a Hindu temple on a small island. This temple came not only with sights, but sounds as it was surrounded by bells of all sizes. Visitors, including us, circled the site ringing each bell.
The sun was setting as we coasted back across the lake, with the Annapurna foothills cast into deepening shades of blue. The only noises were the sound of our rower’s oar in the water and singing at an outdoor worship service on the shore.
The next morning, we got up early for the “American breakfast” offered by the hotel. Surprise, surprise: It was bigger than the regular breakfast and came with eggs, chicken sausage, vegetables, toast, yogurt, granola and a pureed watermelon drink.
Then we set off for a trek — which is what you call hiking in South Asia. Our destination was the Australian Camp, a site actually called Thula Kharka, or big pasture. To get there, Shiva led us up a set of stone steps laid into the foothills.
I’m a runner, but the persistent uphill made me have to stop occasionally to catch my breath. These breaks provided an opportunity to snap photos of amazing views of rice paddies, millet terraces and lemon trees, all lush with the monsoon rains. We also had to stop a few times to pull small leeches off our bodies.
I walked into the Australian Camp feeling like I’d accomplished a major feat, when, in reality, the stop is really just the base camp for a lot of longer treks. But it felt special be actually hiking in a country known for hiking and climbing.
As usual, our views of the upmost mountain peaks were obscured by clouds, but the lower tree-covered foothills still were awe-inspiring to an Iowa flatlander.
After stopping for a drink — we sampled some ginseng rakshi, a kind of traditional liquor — we set back out on the trail. We walked to Dhampus, where it poured rain while we ate lunch under a covered patio, and then on back down the mountain. We encountered men herding horned cattle, schoolgirls going home for lunch and a man hauling grasses in a huge basket on his back.
When we finally arrived at the pickup point, we bought a pack of digestive cookies and split them up as we rode back to Pokhara, the breeze from the open car windows cooling our sweaty bodies.
“Pretty nice little Sunday” I wrote in my journal.
‘Namaste’ is real
We packed a lot into my last half-day in Pokhara. We toured the Gupteshwor Mahadev Cave, sacred to Hindus, in part, because a rock formation looks like Shiva, the Hindu deity. We also visited a Buddhist holy site, the Shanti Stupa, on a ridge above Pokhara. One of my favorite signs, outside the stupa, said “Wise souls speak loudly in silence.”
We also spent 90 minutes at the International Mountain Museum, which features exhibits on Mount Everest and other major peaks around the world. It also has an exhibit on climate change and another featuring all the regions of Nepal and their traditional clothing, tools and food.
Everywhere we went in Nepal, people seemed pretty happy to see us. The COVID-19 pandemic virtually dried up Western tourism, a loss of income felt keenly by shopkeepers, restaurant owners and guides.
But it was about more than the money we had in our pockets. It seems like the Nepali people genuinely love sharing their culture and country with visitors. Putting one’s palms together, dipping the head and saying “Namaste” really is the way Nepalis greet one another.
We had a few less-than-ideal moments. Like the leeches. Or having to use an occasional squat toilet. Or when a guy followed me into a Pokhara bookstore and grabbed my butt. But those are just funny anecdotes for this marvelous trip.
When we occasionally lamented about not being able to see Nepal’s famous mountains, people would comfort us by saying we could see them the next time we visit. I hope there is a next time.
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