Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Nepal - The Himalayan Sibling

If you are looking for a budget destination with lot of cool places, steep snow capped mountains, thrilling adventures and nirvana - Nepal should be in your itinerary.

We friends - 3 of us, had finalised on a trip to Nepal in the month of December 2014, which is the near coldest month in Nepal, with temperatures lingering around 5° C and below, the chill was nasty at nights. Though I thought I was equipped to handle the cold, there were several occasions when I was completely frozen and so was my SD Memory Card of the camera
The sitting Buddha welcoming passengers at the Tribhuvan airport in Kathmandu

 Nepal is a heaven and a haven for the mountaineering enthusiast. Mind you it has 8 of the world’s top 10 highest mountain peaks. Enter Nepal from Kathmandu, Tribhuvan international airport, the only international airport in the landlocked country. There are other options too, by road through the states of UP and Bihar. To save on time, it is always best to fly. Though, the airport itself deported us to the 1960's feel, the smiling Nepali people made me feel comfortable and at home. I was the first to land there as my friends were traveling on different flights on different routes, last minute plan, you see :) 

The Kathmandu valley

An Indian traveling to Nepal need not worry about getting visa or immigration checks in Nepal; any photo identification card is accepted as a proof to enter the country. To my surprise it was not even checked once at any of the immigration counters at the airport. Only while departing from the airport did they stamp my passport. It is like extended state of India, their culture, language, food and hygiene (?) habits, businesses are similar to that of India. Nepal is like a close Himalayan younger sibling lost in its past Gorkha glory and frozen - literally in the Himalayan lap. 

Pashupatinath temple premises - No cameras allowed inside
Our destinations in Nepal were Kathmandu valley, Pokhara and Nagarkot, a hill station, near Kathmandu, though we tried hard to include Everest in the plan, but just couldn't.
Kathmandu is on the banks of the Bagmati River and nestled in the Kathmandu valley. It is surrounded by hills, which gives spectacular views of the city and surrounding areas. Comparatively it is on the lower altitude than other regions in Nepal. The entire valley itself has been declared as a world heritage site by UNESCO, which boasts of as many as 7 monuments and structures in the list.

The Durbar Square in Kathmandu

Do explore some of the nearby local markets on foot in Kathmandu, around the Durbar Square. It is the best place to shop and eat. I was looking for inexpensive gifts back home. Indian currency is accepted everywhere in Nepal. I tried to buy Nepali Rupee at the foreign exchange booth but they denied me, looking at my Indian appearance and the passport. Indian Rupee has a slight advantage in the exchange.

The most famous landmark of Nepal apart from Everest of course

Nepal has about 10% Buddhist population and the monasteries are spread across Kathmandu. Monks were omnipresent in their tradition maroon and saffron attire at the biggest holy place – the Boudhanath stupa along with the Swayambhunath temple which is revered by both Buddhists as well as Hindus. The two eyes on the stupa are the eyes of Buddha (also known as eyes of wisdom) and a symbolic number one in the Devanagari script which symbolizes that any kind of devotion and faith lead to one path. Some believe that it is a question mark of the unknown, the Nirvana. It also symbolizes the conch shell (shankh) which is a holy ritual object used in Hindu customs, according to one of the many theories, we heard from the locals. 

Eyes of wisdom glowing in the evening rays

If you are at the Swayambhunath temple, you cannot afford to miss the Nirvana Café which is atop the hill. This is one of the best roof top restaurants I have visited till date. The immensely spectacular views of the Kathmandu valley left me breathless. You won’t even know a café exists there unless you explore a tiny alley in the temple premises and of course thanks to my hunger. The extremely pleasant sunshine of December in Nepal and we had a laziest lunch basking in the winter sun and in the divinity of Swayambhunath. Icing on the cake was a friendly smiling and cute Nepali attendant of the restaurant who also spoke Marathi, who had spent some years working in Mumbai.

The panorama of the camera has limits capturing the beauty of the place

We bumped into a lot of Indian tourists at the temple of Shiva – Pashuptinath, another UNESCO heritage site. It has a huge ancient complex and has many smaller Hindu temples, ashrams, inscriptions built over centuries on the banks of the Bagmati River. If you are a person who loves history you should stay back in Kathmandu for a week. We saw a lot of old wooden and mud structures, temples and huts standing alongside modern concrete structures. It gave me a feeling of any North Indian hilly town. The Darbar Squares offers a lot of sights and opportunities to learn about the culture and history of the kingdom as well to increase the giga bytes on your hardware. And of course there are Bhaktapur and Patan. 

On the way to Pokhara from Kathmandu

The next day we had our driver hurrying us up for ride to Pokhara. The journey by road from Kathmandu to Pokhara was memorable one, it takes around 5 hours by road. We got ourselves recharged during the journey catching up with our sleeps, the lethargic chill in climate was encouraging us to go in a slumber. The winding roads crisscrossing from one hill to another mountain and to add to we were welcomed by misty climate. One of the must-do on the way to Pokahara, is to take a slight detour to the Mankamana temple atop the mountain through the cable car. Mankamana temple (Literal meaning – Wish fulfilling) is of goddess Bhagwati, which is an incarnation of goddess Parvati.  It is believed that the goddess has the power to fulfil the wishes, so you will see a lot of young couples and newlyweds as well as people carrying a “sacrifice” with them for the goddess. The temple premises has a breath-taking backdrop of snow-capped Himalchuli and Annapurna ranges, which cannot be missed. 

Ropeway to Manakamana temple and the Trishuli river below

We took the very steep cable-car ride which lifted us into another mountain crossing the gushing river of Trishuli below and impressive views of surrounding hamlets and mountains. Once you reach the other side explore the local life passing through a small market and village leading to the temple. The local food, fresh fruits and lot of Gorkhas. We bumped into many of these smiling people with their glowing “pahadi” complexion. I had the sumptuous Sel rotis made by the locals there, made of rice and lots of ghee which is much needed lubricant for the steep region. 

The Manakamana temple premises and the snowy backdrop

We reached Pokhara when the sun was just setting over mighty Annapurna ranges. Pokhara is a tourist friendly city, but to our dismay, we had to start on a bad note, with some last minute hotel changes due to miscommunication. Taking it in our stride, we moved on and after which Pokhara did not disappoint us in anyway.

Pokhara offers a lot of open spaces; it is more organised than Kathmandu, with glittering Phewa lake on the side great views of the Machhapuchhre (Fish tail) peak which is closest to the city and even a blind person can’t miss the 8000+ meters tall Annapurna range. The geological formations in this region are astounding. The numerous gorges formed by internal movements, the relentless water flow from the melting of ice of Himalayan ranges, the tectonic plate movement of the subcontinent towards the Asian plate makes it one of the hotbeds of earthly activities. The fault line formed due to the Indian subcontinent plate moving towards the Asian plate runs right underneath the region dissecting Nepal into two and forming the colossal Himalayan ranges. These are evident in the places like Davi’s falls, Gupteshwar cave and Seti River Gorge.

Pokhara is a haven for adventure seekers

The most flabbergasting experiences were waiting for us the next morning at the Sarangkot hills. In the chilled dawn in Pokhara, when we woke up with sluggish sleepy eyes and reached to the hill to see the most spectacular sunrise of life which brightened up, literally the mighty Annapurna range and our faces. A loud cheer was heard from the crowd gathered over a small hotel terrace representing tourists from all over, as soon as the sun peeped above the horizon and the rays kissed the rugged mountain slept under a carpet of snow. 

One of the best sunrise seen from Sarangkot

Once it was bright daylight and fortunately it was a clear day, we just settled there to imbibe the beauty of the surrounding valley dwarfed by the Annapurnas. When we were just coming out of the mesmerisation of the ranges there was another delightful experience of paragliding over Pokhara. The views were mesmerising, the chill in the air, panoramic bird-like views of the valley and butterflies in the stomach. Although this was my second experience flying in tandem, flying over Pokhara and Fewa Lake was a more complete. Earlier had glided over Queenstown in New Zealand

Annapurna ranges behind and flying over Pokhara

Check out the paragliding video 

There is no shortage of restaurants in Pokhara, you can find for all budgets. Get on bicycles  which are available everywhere, and explore the city. 

The Dhaulagiri and Annapurna ranges and the valley

Our last stop was Nagarkot a small sleepy hill station near Kathmandu. It was frostbiting cold as we climb up the winding hills of Nagarkot. They say the best things are kept at the last. We had the shortest stay in Nagarkot and the Hillside village hotel was fantastic with stunning views of entire Annapurna range, from the room! We chased the sun-set from all the possible points on the Nagarkot and then finally had a relaxing night out at one of the local restaurants. 

Room with a fantabulous view at Nagarkot

We left with one regret to have included more days in our itinerary and took a vow to return back for the Everest. The main attraction while coming back was the new terminal T2 at the Mumbai International Airport.

T2 of CSIA at Mumbai

I felt sad and shocked as the news broke about the massive earthquakes that shattered Nepal in April 2015. The aftershocks and the aftermath that followed, were mind-numbing. I always feel connected with the places I traveled, with the people, trying to imagine the state of situation there, when I catch some news about it. Nepali people are very unpretentious, trying to meet their ends meet with limited resources in a developing economy on a harsh terrain. The major source of income is generated from tourism. I am sure that they will overcome it much stronger with all the help pouring in for them. II Om Shanti II

I would like to hear from you if you have already visited these places or planning to visit in near future. 

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