Nestled amongst China and India, Nepal is a landlocked gem. Though small, it offers rich pickings for adventure lovers and those wanting to experience culture in abundance.
The first destination on our trip around South – East Asia, Nepal is an enchanting place full of mystery and legend, mesmerising mountains and breathtaking landscapes. Starting our month-long trip in Kathmandu, we spent several days getting lost in the labyrinth of bazaars in Thamel whilst we prepared for our two-week trek around the Annapurna Circuit. The trek ended in Pokhara where we spent a few days celebrating the ascent to Throng La pass in the many bars frequented by trekkers and where we rested our weary feet amidst the serenity of Lake Phewa. Finally we took a trip to Chitwan National Park to experience a bit of nature ending the trip back in Kathmandu for a further few days before we moved on to our next destination – Thailand.
For us Nepal was a special place. It threw everything at us with no apologies! It was the kind of place where just being there was an experience. The people both fascinating in their religious and ethnic diversity, stole our hearts with their humour and generosity leaving us heartbroken the moment we left. (Yes there were a few tears from me)! From Stupas to Sherpas, trekkers to temples and myths to mantras, Nepal was everything we imagined it to be and more. It was both awe-inspiring and magical.
Here are the highlights of our journey through Nepal with the most memorable being of course the Annapurna Circuit.
Kathmandu – A Hidden Treasure
Nepal’s sprawling capital Kathmandu drags you kicking and screaming into its black hole of chaos, raw charm and edgy unpredictability. Before you know it you are sucked into a world of noise so incessant that within a few days you wonder how long it will take before the chaos starts to grate you. Cars, motorbikes and people play “chicken” – narrowly avoiding collisions every second. Swerving and dodging, in and out – brushing past death. Enthusiastic street hawkers sell you anything from fruit to marijuana and as you squeeze through narrow dimly lit streets, you hear the faint whisper of “you want something”? Whilst you figure out what that something is, your senses are being attacked from all sides. Wafts of air perfumed by incense mingle with the aromas of street food – savoury, spicy and fragrant. Smells that evoke memories – a feeling of deja vu. Then suddenly, you are awakened from your reverie by a passing truck that belches out toxic black smoke. As days pass your lungs will seriously object to the pollution and dust that constantly hangs in the air! As you stand still for a moment amidst the swarm of people, trying to silence your mind – you know you have arrived at a place that will challenge you at every level.
In total we spent just over a ten days in Kathmandu. Too long you may say – but it gave us time to peel back the layers of this city and uncover a treasure trove of undiscovered experiences. November was a particularly interesting time as Nepal braced itself for a general election. We witnessed people take to the streets to voice their opinions and watched as regular bandhs (strikes) disrupted public transport. We listened as the locals shared their stories of how life really was in a country that suffers so much political unrest. We learned about the cultural and social differences of the people, as individuals and as distinct races. We learned about what brought them together. We were invited to homes and inspired by those who gave their time and compassion to help the many homeless street children in Kathmandu. Our time was spent catching up with friends over plates of steaming Momo’s (Nepalese dumplings), sharing stories with fellow trekkers over beers at Sam’s Bar and just soaking up the atmosphere in the maze of streets and alleyways.
Tihar – the Festival of Light
This five-day festival – also known as Deepawali or Diwali, signifies the victory of light over darkness and good over evil. It’s celebrated all over Nepal. Kathmandu was transformed into a dazzling city of colour and celebration, temporarily distracting everyone from the political atmosphere that had dominated conversations. We saw reverence shown not only to the Gods but also to animals – namely the crow, cow and dog. We’ll never forget walking the streets of Thamel seeing dogs with garlands around their necks and tikas on their heads! Tihar ended on the fifth day when sisters blessed their brothers with tika and in return received gifts or money. Homes and shops were decorated with fresh marigolds, whilst candlelit pathways allowed Laxshmi the Goddess of Wealth to enter – blessing those within for the coming year. Colourful rangoli’s (decorative bright coloured designs) and diyas (oil lamps) adorned paths and all around young boys and girls danced in the street and sang Deusi and Bhailo – traditional songs sung at this time in return for blessings and food.
Discovering the spiritual side of Kathmandu
One way we escaped the craziness of Kathmandu was to visit the many sacred temples, pagodas and stupas. Stepping into a world of peaceful courtyards, ancient architecture and hidden history was a welcome respite. We visited the Boudhanath Stupa (the holiest Buddhist temple outside of Tibet), spending a few hours – under the gaze of the Buddha, to spin prayer wheels, watch Tibetan Monks go about their duties and admire the Stupas symbolic construction. We also visited Swayambunath Temple (Monkey temple) – perched atop a hill that allowed us a great view of Kathmandu. One of Nepals’ oldest Buddhist temples, founded around 2000 years ago.
A glimpse into the past – the ancient town of Bhaktapur
Once the capital of Nepal, this ancient Newari town is the third largest in the Kathmandu valley. The home of traditional art and numerous historical monuments, it houses Durbar Square – a complex of temples grouped around a palace of fifty-five windows. Here you can see Nepalese architecture at its best with its distinctive pagodas and intricate carvings. We walked for hours discovering hidden worlds that lay below the surface, – veiled by the ornate temples. Snaking through the maze of narrow alleyways, we would come across a treasure trove of religious sculptures surrounded by homes hidden behind carved ancient doorways. We meandered through temples stopping for a cool drink in the many snack shops where the calm and warmth of the locals was a welcome break from the frantic activity of Thamel.
Pokhara – The Perfect Trekkers Retreat
Over the years Pokhara has established itself as an adventure playground, where backpackers mingle with trekkers celebrating their Himalayan ascents in the many bars that line the main strip in the town. Adrenaline junkies can get their fix from microlight flights to white water rafting, whilst the more chilled out amongst us can opt for a more sedate massage or yoga session. Nestled amongst this hive of activity is a calm oasis known as Phewa Tal – the second largest lake in Nepal. For us it was the Jewel in the Crown! A place of serenity to rest after our Annapurna trek and look up to the sky where on clear days we could see the Annapurna range once again – reflected in the emerald waters of the lake. Surrounded by the lush forests, the laid back atmosphere and many restaurants made for a perfect place to unwind.