As our Gulf Air jet began its smooth descent into Nepal’s mountain-engulfed Kathmandu Valley, I wondered what this diversely spiritual country with its strange sounding names was really all about. The view of the Himalayas unfolding from the plane’s window certainly whet my appetite.
The Nepal Tourism Board promotes eco tourism and promises to provide something unique to tourists across the world despite admissions of the country undergoing transition. With the objective of connecting Nepal and the Middle East, I was here with a group of other Middle East journalists for a four-day, tour-intensive excursion of the Kathmandu Valley, its capital city Kathmandu, and a sample of its offerings.
We were warmly welcomed by general manager Vikram Singh and staff of Gokarna Forest Resort with greetings of ‘Namaste’ combined with palms joined together. Ivory scarves were placed about our necks and large red thumb prints of a rice and paste substance pressed into our forehead. Welcome to Gokarna Resort and Kathmandu, Nepal!
As Nepal is the melting pot of Hinduism and Buddhism – and religion a way of life – we naturally visited ancient holy sites related to both. However, Nepal is a year round destination with different offerings during different seasons.
Geographically, 35 percent of the land is forest with 25 percent designated as preserved and protected. With the Himalaya Mountains in the distance – and the world’s eight highest peaks – and foothills surrounding the valley, the terrain consisted mainly of villages and cities amid rice paddy fields and fertile agricultural land. Monkeys, dogs and sacred cows roamed as they pleased.
Architecturally, Nepal boasts more than 3,000 temples and 1200 monasteries, and has as many temples as houses and as many gods as people. Its ancient multi-tiered pagodas and stupas (Buddhist monuments containing relics) are all constructed to worship images of gods and goddesses, demons and beasts, mythical creatures, and deity.
Culturally, there are seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites here – five considered cultural and two considered natural (the two national parks). Sculptures, wood craft and stone works were the medium, most portraying representations of mythical lore. The Nepalese celebrate more festivals than days in a year, including 100 designated holidays.
Religiously, it is apparently not a rarity for Hindus and Buddhists to visit the same Nepalese places of pilgrimage. Tolerance in religion is one of the most remarkable features of Nepali culture, and Nepal has never witnessed a religious riot, according to our guide. The overwhelming majority of the population is Hindu, which was the country’s first religion. Buddhism and Islam rank second and third, respectively.
Our first stop was to Pashupatinath, Nepal’s holiest Hindu pilgrimage destination, but also revered by Buddhists. This is an absolute must-see site! It is here that legend says Pashupati – Lord of the Animals – took up residence.
The large square-shaped Pashupati Hindu temple, lying on the west bank of the Bagmati River, is believed to have been constructed on the site where a sacred cow that had wandered from its herd stopped to give milk. Hindus revere the cow as a holy animal believing it will aid the deceased relative’s journey to heaven. Nepal’s age-old procession of The Cow’s Festival is celebrated yearly, usually between August and September.
Our guide pointed out the white-washed hospice building with its international red cross explaining that the local villagers want to die here in the hospice and be cremated. They believe, he told us, that if they do so, they will avoid reincarnation.
This village is also considered sacred as it is built along the banks of the Bagmati, which eventually flows into India’s holy Ganges, thus designating it holy as well. Hindus are often seen taking ritual dips in the water beside the temple. Pashupatinath also features 18 temples in a tidy row and numerous fertility pagodas, also in formation.
Pashupatinath is regarded as the “Supreme Self who delivers humans from worldly afflictions”, and is one of the most sacred cremation sites where funeral rituals are openly observed. The Hindu custom is that within 24 hours of death, the body is brought to the holy river bank and floated in a wooden casket a short distance. The corpse, wrapped in a brightly colored shroud is then removed and gently brought to the water’s edge where men wash its exposed feet while mourners pray and observe. Finally, the body is placed upon a pyre of red-hot enflamed wood for a very public cremation.
According to our guide, ten to 15 years ago a widow wore a white dress forever and could never remarry. Now the deceased’s spouse wears white for one year.
An equally stunning site here are the babas (holy men) – celibate hermits who have dedicated their lives to Lord Shiva – swathed in loin cloths and/or garbed in bright hued orange fabric with ash-painted bodies and flowing beards lounging near small temples. I saw seven of them the day we visited. The ever present monkeys wander as they please among people, shrines, and temples. We were warned never to show our teeth as they view that as a form of aggression.
Although the hawkers were terribly annoying and extremely persistent, selling jewelry and handicrafts is one of their few means of income. They tend to “adopt” tourists and follow closely at their heels desperate to negotiate a sale.
Thamel, with its night clubbing spots in Kathmandu, fusion music, and a variety of restaurants was a nice nudge back to reality although this downtown nightspot is wall to wall people, shops and traffic. A relaxing meal at New Orleans Café with its fabulous carrot cake and owner Sudesh Shrestha’s multiple musical talents was a welcome respite to a long day’s end.
City of Arts
Our second full day found us off to Patan Durbar Square, another UNESCO site. Patan, meaning City of Arts, was founded in the third century AD. Located here is Krishna Mandir, Patan’s largest and most prominent temple, constructed completely of stone and the only one in Nepal with 21 golden spires. The Square consists of various sized temples, courtyards, stone columns and shrines, and the Patan Museum. This cultural landmark, a former royal palace, houses some of Nepal’s traditional sacred art. Exhibited are both Hindu and Buddhist objects and deity sculptures along with an easy-to-follow written explanation of Nepal’s cultural history to help put it all into perspective.
One of the architectural wonders of Patan Square is its minutely carved wooden detail around temple windows and doors.
While lunching at the Summit Hotel in the UN area of Kathmandu, owner Kit Spencer told us of the many mountain activities available – many of which he arranges – for those seeking more physically active adventures. Trekking, mountaineering, bungee jumping, rock climbing, mountain biking, canyoning, paragliding, and rafting are just some of the possibilities. Early morning mountain flights of Mount Everest are also available and can be booked by most larger hotels and resorts.
The UNESCO-designated Bouddhanath, amongst the largest stupas in South Asia and the largest in Nepal, is believed to have been constructed in the fifth century AD. The Bouddha stupa, rising 36 meters (118 feet) from its white dome and surrounded by monasteries, is a center of cultural activities, prayers and meditation for Buddhists, and is most closely identified with Nepal’s Tibet Buddhists. Although anyone may enter the square and circle the stupa, only Buddhists are permitted to enter the Bouddha.
Hindus and tourists intermix with groups of red and orange-clad Buddhists of all ages as they walk clockwise around the circular monument spinning the prayer wheels as they go. All day long devotees walk around this stupa until the main gate locks for the evening.
All Buddhist stupas feature two bow-shaped eyes and what looks like a nose that “gazes out in four directions”. Buddhists believe that these eyes represent Buddha’s omniscience.
Bhaktapur Durbar Square
Another popular landmark reflecting Kathmandu’s rich culture, art and architectural design is Bhaktapur Durbar Square. Bhaktapur means City of Devotees and was founded in 889 AD. It is one of three royal towns of Nepal. This UNESCO site features many pagodas, palaces, monuments, courtyards and monasteries.
The popular 55-window palace in the main courtyard is the result of a king who wanted to see out from every side and angle of his palace. It is a totally wooden structure dating to 1700 AD.
A narrow paved lane lined with shops and shoppers leads to another large square. Here stands the towering five-tiered roofed Nyatapol temple. Stone figures of deities and mythical beasts, each considered ten times more powerful than the one immediately below, flanks the stone stairway leading up the 30-meter high temple. The pairs of figures, from the bottom up, are human wrestlers, elephants, lions, griffins and goddesses. It is the tallest temple in the Kathmandu valley, and its incredible size and form mesmerizing.
My eyes caught a glimpse of immense wooden wheels leaning in a corner opposite this pagoda, prompting a question as to its origin. During the Bisket Jatra festival to celebrate their New Year, the guide explained, a tall wooden ceremonial poll is erected here in the square. This festival commemorates the famous battle of Mahabharata with the wooden pole symbolizing victory. After two days, the local people take the wooden beams and wheels I saw to assemble a mighty chariot. Images of the god Bhairab and his female counterpart Bhadra are enshrined in this and another lavishly decorated chariot, and pulled by 600-700 men through crowds of cheering spectators. When the chariots reach the city center, residents of the two neighborhoods begin a tug-of-war. The winners are considered blessed with good fortune for the coming year.
The Bread Basket of Nepal
Rice is the number one crop in this fertile valley, planted and harvested three times a season. It was harvesting time in October when I visited, and farmers and villagers were busy drying sheaves, cleaning and separating the grains, and bagging them for market. I spotted men, women and children toiling together in the fields. Wheat is the valley’s second major crop. Most families also have vegetable garden plots.
Headquartered out of Gokarna Resort, we descended from the hills and maneuvered through the valley’s villages daily. The impoverished areas with cows roaming freely and dogs sleeping in roads and doorways painted an interesting scene. Here, according to Gokarna Resort staff, there is no middle class. People are either very poor or affluent. Garbage and litter was strewn everywhere, and the valley communities smack of a Third World environment. Yet children appeared carefree as they scampered about playing while waiting their turns on the bamboo swings. It was difficult to look beyond this at times in order to see the big picture and Nepal’s potential.
Electricity here is a luxury not taken for granted as power outages – both planned and unplanned – occur daily. The valley is divided into segments and electricity shut off section by section for up to eight hours at a time. Resorts and major hotels, of course, have generator backup. But once nightfall grips the valley, dimly lit candles are the norm. The one major road connecting the valley communities with Kathmandu is narrow, filled with treacherous potholes, unlit, and a menace for pedestrians. Transportation takes on many forms: strolling villagers balancing baskets on their heads or lugging heavy bags, motor scooters darting in and out of traffic often with a young child clinging to female passengers perched “side saddle” (once I even saw a puppy being clutched closely), automobiles and trucks spewing venomous black fumes, broken down bicycles fighting for space to pedal, and buses with passengers miraculously clinging to the roof amidst luggage and other loosely secured items when this was the only remaining space available.
It is also common to see people washing themselves in the many public bathing areas. Our guide explained that prior to 1934 Nepal’s water source came from bricks, so these public washing areas are very common, useful and plentiful.
As chaotic a scene as this village life presents, the exact opposite is portrayed high up through the steep hills to Nagarkot peering down through lush canopy into the 800-meter high Kathmandu valley. To view a sunset from the very pinnacle of the ridge – at an altitude of 2,165 meters (7,100 feet) – from Club Himalaya and its majestic panoramic vistas of the Himalayas is nothing short of spectacular. One hundred eighty degrees of the Himalayan vista from Mt. Annapurna in the northwest to Mt. Everest in the extreme northeast offers tourists easy sighting. Feeling on top of the world and in plain view of snow capped mountains as the sun sinks down behind clouds during its nightly descent only to be replaced by a brightly lit sliver of a moon is indeed inspiring and tranquil. Breathing in the refreshing cool mountain air is a real treat, especially for those coming from dusty and humid desert climates.
Nagarkot is an hour’s drive from Kathmandu via a slow traversing and winding narrow unlit dirt road. Amazingly, this village and everything surrounding it was without basic utilities, such as a road, electricity, telephone lines, water, health care and schools until the late 1990s! The deforestation was staggering as villagers severed the aged trees for cooking and sold the wood as their only source of income. Nagarkot Cottage, Nepal’s first eco-tourist cottage, was built here in 1967 with no electricity.
Club Himalaya’s Yogendra Sakya and other nearby lodges paid to have some 10,000 trees planted, and the forest is slowly returning. They bonded together to solidify corporate social responsibilities in helping the Nagarkot villagers by contributing money toward building a school, health centre, police station, the road construction and much more. They are educating the community by using eco-friendly products and composting all biodegradable wastes.
But as the Nepal Tourism Board readily admits, they are in transition. The future lies in untapped water from the mountains waiting to be harnessed into hydropower, the significant push toward tourism, and continued development and promotion of eco tourism. The new Maoist government appears to be on board with this vision.
Gokarna Forest Resort – a tranquil experience in itself – has long been promoting eco tourism and conservation. Situated deep inside the Gokarna Forest, formerly the private royal hunting grounds of the kings of Nepal, this 500-year-old forest has never been denuded. The resort sits within 470 acres of the ancient forest and features an 18-hole, par 72 golf course offering a magnificent view of snow-capped Zuzal Peak, one of the nearest to Kathmandu Valley. Keeping with its eco-mindedness, local women manicure and weed the greens by hand avoiding the use of pesticides. Just inside the tree line from the fifth green sits Remember Palace, so named because a king often came here to think.
Hunter’s Lodge, a 100-year old restored structure, now provides the setting for planetary singing bowls therapy and meditation. Nearby Harmony Spa offers a variety of spa treatments and massages, and annexes the pool and health club. The hotel, of course, offers fine meals, morning yoga, forest walks, spacious rooms providing a relaxed atmosphere with a near king-sized-bed bathtub and shower. Its eco-friendly recycled paper products, soap and water have been in use for years. Water bowls spouting fresh flowers float serenely around the premises undisturbed by the abundant monkeys leaping about. The resort and its expansive offerings present a most definitely relaxing and tranquil space away from the chaos of the everyday world.
My personal conclusion about Nepal is simply “once is not enough”. With its mystical and mesmerizing culture, Nepal is truly a sight to behold. And with Gulf Air’s roundtrip fares at just 190 BD, Bahrain to Nepal is very affordable. So what are you waiting for? I’m going back. Let’s start packing!