Sandwiched between India and China, Nepal is renowned for its wild beauty, amazing landscapes with skyscraping peaks and tourist attractions, but also for Kathmandu's traffic jams and not-so-clean areas of the city. How does reality stack up to things people say? We went to Nepal for a week - Kathmandu, Begnas and Pokhara - to find out.
Namaste! We landed in Kathmandu 5.5 hours late because of the weather. However, this did not dampen our spirit and excitement. It was our first trip to Nepal, a country we've heard many things about, so we were determined to make the most out of the next seven days. Sure, we were a bit upset because we could have used those five and a half hours to explore Kathmandu, but you can't really fight Mother Nature. At best, all you can do is play along. Having exited the plane, an Airbus A330, we were greeted by clear skies and sunny weather. Great! We entered the small Terminal, looking forward to clear Customs, arrive at the hotel and then get lost in the city. We were expecting some delays dealing with immigration procedures, but the 1.5 hours we spent stuck in line to get our 15 days tourist visa (25 USD) surpassed our initial estimates. "At least we'll get used easier with the city's real traffic jams!" You can also get a one-day transit visa (5 USD), 30 days tourist visa (40 USD) or 90 days tourist visa (100 USD).
By the time we arrived at the Immigration officer's desk we took some moments to reflect on Nepal - a potential "Switzerland of South Asia" as an UK trade delegation dubbed it. A country in South Asia, Nepal (Federal parliamentary republic) has an area of 147,181 square kilometres and a population of approximately 27 million. Located in the Himalayas, Nepal is bordered to the North by China and to the South, East and West by India. Eight of the world's ten tallest mountains - including the highest point on Earth, Mount Everest (8,848 m) - and more than 240 peaks over 6,096 m can be found in Nepal. Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Gautama Buddha, one of the holiest places of the Buddhist religion, lies in the southern Terai region. Apart from tourism - which has great potential in Nepal - and agriculture, the country is on track to be the second hydropower in the world after Brazil. Nepal's rivers - about 6,000, including rivulets and tributaries totaling 45,000 km in length - and the steep gradient of the country's topography provide ideal conditions for the development of hydropower.
Customs cleared, we hopped on the minivan which took us to Grand Hotel. Greeted by a friendly and smiling staff, we checked-in, unpacked, rested for a few minutes and then we set off to explore Kathmandu. But first we had to find a taxi! In Kathmandu and the rest of Nepal there are no fixed taxi fees, so you have to bargain with the driver to get the best price. We did that to the best of our abilities and headed for Durbar Square, making our way through the city's crowded streets. In Nepal they drive on the left (see Japan or Great Britain), with the steering wheel on the right-hand side of the vehicles. Just like we've been told, the traffic in Kathmandu is not for the faint hearted. No, sir! Cars, minivans, small trucks, scooters and motorbikes all rushing up and down like they're racing against the clock. Plus pedestrians who cross the street and zig-zag from one sidewalk to another when you least expect them to.
A friend told us car taxes in Nepal amount to 240%. Even so, we had the feeling that Kathmandu's roads couldn't cope with the number of vehicles. Oh... one more thing: drivers like to use the horn in Kathmandu like nowhere else in the world! If you're not honking every 2-3 minutes, then you don't exist. By the time we got to Durbar Square we stopped counting the drivers who frequently used the horn and focused, instead, on those who didn't. It was easier. Without doubt, Kathmandu's traffic is the craziest we've seen so far (and we've visited several countries). Both crazy and fascinating. However, we didn't witness one single crash during our three day stay in Nepal's capital city, which says something about the skills of these drivers and motorbike / scooter riders.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Durbar Square - with its spectacular architecture - showcases the skills of Newar artists and craftsmen over several centuries. Speaking of Newars, they are the indigenous people of the Kathmandu Valley and its surrounding areas and the creators of its historic civilization. We've arrived in Nepal just as Deepawali / Diwali - the Festival of Lights - was celebrated. The festival spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil and hope over despair. Moreover, our first day in Kathmandu - October 25th - coincided with the second day of the Newari 1135 New Year, while in the Nepali calendar we were visiting the country in 2071. Coming back to Durbar Square, it houses the palaces of Malla and Shah Kings who ruled over the city, the old royal palace, as well as several quadrangles revealing courtyards and temples. The oldest temples in this square were built by Malla (1560–1574) and are being preserved as national heritage sites, while the palace is used as a museum.
We couldn't leave Durbar without trying to see one of Nepal's most curious attractions, located at the southern end of the square: Kumari living goddess (also known as Kumari Devi). This tradition has been around in Nepal since at least the 17th century. Every ten years or so, a girl aged between 4-7 years old is selected from a particular caste to live as the real-life incarnation of Durga, the Hindu mother goddess, until her first menstruation. After that, the goddess leaves and she resumes her mortal status once more. The selection process for finding the incarnated goddess is rigorous and exacting. Once chosen, the girl must leave her home and family to reside in a palace as a living deity. She will rarely get to leave the palace, except when carried on a golden palanquin to religious ceremonies. As her feet are deemed sacred, she will barely walk at all. Although non-Hindus are not allowed to enter the Kumari's chamber to seek her blessing, tourists can occasionally catch a glimpse of her looking out from the windows on the third floor, even if for a few seconds.
We didn't get to see her, but we were told the atmosphere in the courtyard is filled with devotion and awe when these irregular appearances occur. Also, the power of the Kumari is perceived to be so strong that even a glimpse of her is believed to bring good fortune. Worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists in Nepal, Kumari Devi is visited by the more fortunate petitioners, bureaucrats and other Government officials in her chambers, where she sits upon a gilded lion throne. Petitioners usually bring gifts and food offerings to the Kumari, who receives them in silence. Upon arrival, she offers them her feet to touch or kiss as an act of devotion.
Next stop: Thamel, the first Wi-Fi zone in Nepal since September 2011. No wonder many selfies and photos are taken by tourists here and then quickly uploaded on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. We left Durbar and wandered through the narrow, bustling streets of Kathmandu, finding new buildings to photograph while admiring fascinating people, locals, as we met them. Most of them were working, trying hard to sell different things to people passing by: food, clothing, souvenirs and other items. Despite the beautiful architectural styles surrounding us, we've noticed that this part of the city could have been cleaner. We were told the old part of Kathmandu is dirty - in contrast with the "new" part of the city, which we've also visited - and our walk from Durbar to Thamel confirmed that. On a positive note, we know India is worse from this point of view.
After a 20-25 minute relaxed walk we arrived in Thamel. It has been the centre of Kathmandu's tourist industry for over four decades, starting with the hippie movement, when many artists came to Nepal and spent weeks in Thamel. The various shops and vendors found here sell music CD/DVDs, pastries, walking gear and handicrafts, as well as a wide range of other things. Travel agencies, budget hotels and restaurants also line the streets of Thamel, together with stores where you can buy mountaineering gear, foreign money exchange booths, pubs, clubs and guest houses. By the time we reached Tamel we got hungry, so we found a cozy restaurant in a small garden next to a hotel. We decided to have a late lunch enjoying traditional cuisine and some local beers: Gorkha, Everest and Nepal Ice. Our favourite beer was Gorkha, named after the world-famous "gurkhas" - fearless Nepalese fighters whose motto is "Better to die than be a coward". Restaurants in Thamel also serve continental delicacies, so you'll have many options to choose from, although prices tend to be significantly higher than in non-tourist areas. During our stay in Kathmandu we've also tried Chez Caroline, a French restaurant located in the new part of the city. We had dinner with some friends from Dubai and we liked the place, so we came back for lunch the following day. Kumari photo: oldpiano.org
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How do we sum up Nepal after seven unforgettable days? It was love at first flight as we haven't visited this country before. It was also love at first sight. Nepal has some amazing landscapes and landmarks, from Kathmandu's stupas and temples to the majestic snow covered peaks of the Himalayas - eight of the world's ten tallest mountains, including Mount Everest, can be found in Nepal - and the beautiful lakes in Begnas and Pokhara. We can even say it was love at first bite as we've tried some interesting dishes and drinks. Leaving these aside, we fell in love with the people of Nepal: friendly, welcoming and with a warmth you'll rarely find. As for the children we met while hiking on the hills of Begnas, they were the happiest we've seen so far. We made new friends, spending some time with like-minded people, helpful and passionate about traveling. More than just another destination, Nepal is a journey of (self) discovery, a genuine experience that made us reevaluate what's important in life. We will return soon, that's for sure.