Nepal kind of reminded me of Bolivia. Both are landlocked countries full of mountains, but they are also some of the poorest countries in the world (mostly due to their environment). The aboriginal-looking women in Nepal also had similar traits to Bolivian women (and sometimes even wore the same hairstyles) – but they were lacking the typical Bolivian rosy cheeks and huge skirts. There are even a tribe of people, the Sherpas, who have evolved physically to carry more oxygen in their blood than people in the plains! Reminds me of the people in the high Andes plateau…
That’s about it for the similarities. Nepal houses the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest (8850 meters), and has eight of the world’s ten highest peaks – all located in the great Himalaya. The country is also the birthplace of Buddha, although Buddhism is the second biggest religion here. Hinduism, the most popular religion, makes 76% of the population – and you say “Namaste” to greet people here, just like in India! Also, since we were in winter, and Nepal relies on hydroelectricity, the dry rivers delivers far less electricity than in the summer. What results are power cuts that last from 8-12 hours… so, we always had to plan in order to take showers or even to print up stuff. I wonder how metal bands rehearse here!
Since I am still without a decent camera, I went in a store and made a deal with the shop owner – I bought a cheap camera and he’d take it back, paying 40% of the original price. I know, it’s not a really good deal, but it came up to around 2.5$ per day of “rental”, which is better than having a disposable camera anyway. The camera was OK though, I was able to take some pretty nice photos as you’ll see later in the post!
The first thing we did in Nepal was to walk around in its capital, Kathmandu. We were shocked on how calm it was compared to India! We are so used to loud horns and rickshaw reckless driving that we almost missed it. “Where are the horns and the sounds???” Haha! But not everything is gone, Kathmandu has its fair share of pollution. The cars are not regulated, people make little fires everywhere and generators (used during the aforementioned power cuts) lay down a nice, thick, black smoke.
The first cool thing we saw was the Katheshimbhu stupa, which looked really exotic with its multicolour prayer flags and its evil-looking eyes! I took a photo of a little girl who was hanging out with her grandfather.
We then walked around and saw a strange statue of the elephant god Ganesh, which had no more head. Apparently it is from the 9th century, and centuries of devotees have put colourful paste over it.
Some parts of our walk was pretty scruffy – some buildings looked really old and seemed like they were going to collapse!
There were many many temples everywhere, and even more devotees lurking around them. Religion is an important part of life here, and people live and breathe it! But strangely enough, locals go to both Buddhist and Hindu shrines… it is part of the local culture (Newari) to mix both religions.
A little further down, we came across one of the most important and ornate temples in Kathmandu, the Seto Machhendranath Temple. Buddhists consider Seto Machhendranath to be a form of Avolokitesvara, while Hindus say he is a rain-bringing incarnation of Shiva. So, everyone’s happy! At each corner of the temple is purifying fire, which people shook using a bamboo stick.
Another really cool place we stumbled upon was the Nara Devi temple, which is dedicated to Kali. The locals believe that Kali’s powers protected the temple from a huge earthquake that happened in 1934!
What I really loved about old Kathmandu was that pretty much everywhere you go, you find some really beautiful architecture. You can go in some really dirty alleyway and end up in front of a 300-year old house with beautifully ornate wood windows!
After two hours of walking, we arrived at the place surrounding one of Kathmandu’s old palaces, Durbar Square. Declared Unesco due to its importance on the world heritage, we were shocked when we arrived there… it cost 10$ to enter the area, per person!! 10$ doesn’t seem like that much, but for travelers like us, it is a full day of food! So we decided to find another way to sneak in… and we did, by the south entrance! HA!
The most unusual thing about Durbar Square though, is its living goddess – the Royal Kumari (royal virgin). The legend goes that a king in the mid 1700’s was regularly playing dice with the goddess Taleju, the protective deity of the Kathmandu valley. One night, he made a sexual advance, which made her hysterically mad – and threatened to withdraw her protection. She eventually changed her mind, and said she’d reincarnate as a young girl. And how did they know it was her? There are 32 ways of telling; she needs to be born from a caste of goldsmiths, have perfect skin, a set of 20 teeth, a beautiful voice, a horoscope that matches the king’s and the most gruesome… she’d be put in a room filled with 108 buffalo and goat heads, dripping blood all over. The poor little girl would apparently spend the night there, and would have to show no sign of being scared. Because of course, goddesses are not scared of anything! If she succeeded all the tests, she’d be removed from her family and placed inside her “home” – where she would stay there until she hits her periods or loses a significant amount of blood. During the time she is “possessed” by the goddess Taleju, her feet would never touch the ground! You can spot her from her balcony some mornings (for a few seconds), or if you have good connexions, you can meet her inside and offer some flowers and food. Anyway, it gets pretty complicated, but I thought it was pretty crazy. Apparently when the girl becomes “normal” again, she becomes a total social outcast – because she was alone most of the time. On top of it, legend says that if she marries, the man will die within 6 months! But of course, that never happens.
So what else did we do during out stay in Kathmandu? We rented a classical guitar and wrote a couple of songs (!!! Never were we so productive!!)… we tried to find a rehearsal space, but the lack of electricity made it very hard haha.
And then of course, we ate… Nepal is home to the momo. Momo’s are originally from Tibet, but they have been imported to Nepal and are incredibly popular there – usually eaten as a snack. In Nepal, they are traditionally filled with vegetables (carrots/cabbage/chilli/garlic/onion), buffalo meat (since cows are sacred) or chicken. I’ve been a huge fan of momo’s – having eaten them in Canada (and later, in India) but I found the ones in Nepal a bit bland, actually! Perhaps I have been going to the wrong restaurants. In any case, they are still yummy and I still crave them all the time:
Another Tibetan food we had was Thentuk, a thick soup made with meat and square home-made noodles. We also had one with buffalo meat, but the meat was really tough to chew haha
We also tried homemade “beer”, which is actually fermented millet mixed with boiling water – which you drink using a metallic straw. It reminded me alot of Colombian chicha for its vinegar-y taste, but it’s quite a shock the first time you get it in your mouth… it gets time getting used to it. But the stuff is pretty strong, it got me a little giggly hehe
Frustratingly enough, it was hard to find genuine Nepali food in the tourist neighbourhood of Kathmandu (where we were staying). If we didn’t want to walk 30 minutes to find a restaurant, we usually had to settle for expensive restaurants that cater to boring tourist taste buds. We did find ONE killer restaurant that had 2$ plates of dal bhat tarkari, lentils, veggies and rice – and which were incredibly tasty (and spicy!!) the cool thing is that it was “all you can eat”, so the waiters come to your table and refill your plate until you puke. The potato curry was especially delicious, ohhhhh man!
Another thing we did in our first week, was to climb the mountain of Swayambhunath. Swayambhunath is one of the holiest Buddhist sites in Kathmandu. There are long stairs leading up to a stupa, prayer wheels and an amazing view of the valley of Kathmandu.
The top of the hill was full of temples, souvenir shops, prayer flags, prayer wheels and monkeys… The main temple god is apparently worshiped to improve eyesight! In front of it were some women that were getting blessed by a holy man. At least, it looked like that…
All around the temples and stupa were Tibetan prayer wheels. Apparently, spinning such wheels should have the same effect as orally reciting prayers. Pretty useful huh?
After our week in Kathmandu, we decided to go to an even quieter town, and we chose Pokhara – which is located about 6 hours away by bus. Let’s go!
Back only 60 years ago, the only way to get to Pokhara from Kathmandu was to embark on a 10-day pony trek, and go through deadly river passes. How things have changed! Our bus ride was extremely comfortable and we arrived safely to our destination, on time and everything. Awesome.
Upon our arrival, we feasted on our first Nepalese beer, Nepal Ice! It doesn’t taste super killer or anything, but it was 7%, which knocked us out pretty fast.
We stayed in Pokhara for a week, and did two small treks. OK, they weren’t that small, but compared to what people usually come to do here (6-20 days trekking in the valleys and mountains), they were quite tiny! The first trek was a “walk” around the lake, which was took 10 hours (including breaks) and around 22 km going up and down mountains. It was a really scenic walk through mountains and rustic villages, and we got to visit a peace pagoda… but it was pretty rough on the legs! We haven’t been doing much exercise these days because the places we go to are either too populated or too polluted (who wants to walk 10 hours in pollution??) But it feels great to move the body after so long!
What was annoying was that every time you encountered children, they asked you for candy or sweets. If you said no, they asked for money. I think it comes from other stupid tourists that gave them candy and money thinking they’d be helpful… but instead they built expectations and now these kids see us not as humans like themselves – but walking money and candy bags! There were even kids that gave us the “finger” (the index finger haha, they don’t know what it means!) and said “fuck!!!” from far away. Anyway, I still managed to take this photo of them, before I got attacked by demands of candy and money… (which I did not give hehehe)
Going back down, we had to go through a little path between rice fields, and then cross a small river using a very ingenious system!
We still had another hour to walk back home after that. The sky was getting darker and darker and we started hearing thunder. Far away we saw what we thought to be strong rain, that was coming towards us very fast… but a few minutes later, when it reached us, we figured out it was DUST! It was almost like a desert dust storm! It was really strong and got all over my face – in my ears, eyes, nostrils, mouth, etc… really annoying! But then it left, and rain started pouring on us pretty violently. We took shelter under the roof of a nice woman, and then finally arrived home in the early evening. The sky was so beautiful after the rain!!!
I also learned how to make momo’s! Near our hotel were some budget restaurants, where you could find plates of momo’s for really cheap. The kitchen was outside, so I decided to ask the lady if I could help her make momo’s… and she said yes! So I sat down on the floor with her and she showed me the sacred Nepalese art of making those addictive dumplings. I wasn’t very good at first, but I became better and better!!
We wanted to eat something different, so we went to a Korean restaurant (!). There are like 6 Korean restaurants in Pokhara, catering to mostly Korean tourists (they got to have their kimchi every day!!) We each ordered meals that came with tiny side dishes. It was absolutely delicious but hellishly spicy! I think of all Asia, the spiciest food is from Korea. I had to stop a few times in order to let the heat cool off… it was really insane.
So we did our next trek a couple of days later. We had to climb to the village of Sarangkot, located on the top of a mountain, at 1550 meters of altitude. In fact, we had to climb 750 meters, which we did in 4 hours. This mountain is one of the top 10 spots in the world to do paragliding – people throw themselves from the cliff and into the valley. That thing cost like 100 euros… too expensive for us!
When we arrived at our hotel (called Super View haha), we took a nice 3 hour nap, and then went out for dinner. The city lights were super cool from that high!
The next morning, we woke up at 5:30, and went to the highest part of the mountain to watch the sun rise on the Annapurna part of the Himalaya… it was like watching a very slow movie, but it was so much more spectacular…
After that, we took a little nap and then descended back to where we came from. We had lunch at a local restaurant – which was 50% cheaper than anything we’d seen around the touristic area… and even tastier!
While walking back in the city, we encountered the most polluted river I’ve ever seen. In fact, there isn’t any water anymore, it looked like a garbage dump. A friend told me that locals throw their garbage in rivers and water to purify them. I don’t really understand that logic, but anyway, here is a photo of it:
At the end of the week, we “celebrated” the little Irish blood we had (don’t know if I have any, but we had so many Irish immigrants in Canada that we probably all have a percentage) by drinking beer on the side of the lake for Saint Patrick’s day… the beers in restaurant near the lake were 350 rupees, but we went to buy one in a market, which only cost us 150 rupees! HA! Anyway, it was a nice way to end our staying in Pokhara.
Right now, we just arrived in Bhaktapur, a medieval town (!) near Kathmandu. We have only a week left before we finish our Asian chapter and enter the grounds of Europe! Woohoo!