I seem to have made it my life’s mission to travel to the planet’s most exotic destinations; you know, the kind of places 99% of Americans would never dream of going. From what I can gather the vast majority of vacationers prefer to lay on a tropical, white sand beach, gazing out over crystal clear water, while sipping a mojito or some other rum/tequila filled drink. Not many traipse through the Cambodian rainforests to catch a glimpse of the ruins of Angkor Wat, and I think only one other person I know has been to Jordan to witness the majesty of Petra.
Which brings me to my next entry: trekking through the Kathmandu Valley in the center of Nepal just south of the Himalayans and the world’s tallest and most famous mountain, Mt. Everest. The country of Nepal is an amazing place to visit if you’re a fan of nature, or culture, or good food, or simply a relaxing day filled with friendly people. Of all the locations to which I’ve traveled over the years, I’d recommend Kathmandu above all others; it’s a land of snow peaks, Sherpas, yaks and yetis, monasteries and mantras. We originally intended to travel to Tibet, but with additional regulations and permits required by the Chinese government, we opted for their next-door-neighbor instead. And boy, are we sure glad we did!
We stayed in a hotel called the Kantipur Temple House, a green hotel (there’s not a single ounce of plastic to be found anywhere) that’s managed to capture the essence of the Nepali people and culture, located in the Thamel area of the city (mostly for foreigners and trekkers). A guest will find that culture everywhere from the exterior and interior courtyards to the food served in the restaurant and the rooms themselves (the bedspreads are hand-crafted Nepali masterpieces unto themselves). We became such good friends with the staff, they even invited us to share a traditional Nepali meal with them in the basement kitchen. The only issue with the hotel, the city, and the nation of Nepal, is the load shedding.
Load Shedding is the planned and scheduled power-outages that ripple across this tiny, landlocked nation and occurs about 12 hours of every day in 3 to 6 hour chunks of time. 52% of Nepal’s produced electricity is exported to neighboring India and their vast hydroelectric power capabilities have yet to be tapped. The country only produces 700 megawatts, but has the potential to produce 40,000 megawatts! It seems the people have become a willing victim of shrewd Indian businesses.
Thankfully, this load shedding hasn’t deterred any tourism, which accounts for over $300 million dollars in the country’s annual revenue. And once you get used to the power cutting off for hours at a time (and most hotels and restaurants provide backup generators for their customers’ comfort) the rest of the experience in this beautiful and eco-friendly nation is breathtaking. The Kathmandu Valley is the most densely populated place in the world – not of people… of important historical and cultural monuments. Of the 130 found within a 20 kilometer radius, the valley boasts 7 UNESCO World Heritage Sites! And we went to them all…
There are three major ‘cities’ within the valley: Kathmandu, Patan (Lalitpur), and Bhaktapur, and each maintains its own Durbar Square (durbar literally translates to ‘place of palaces’). The squares charge admission fees to get inside, but once there you’ll feel transported back in time. The squares are kept cleaner than the rest of the back alleys and main thoroughfares of the respective cities and there’s much more to see and do in them as well: palaces, temples, shrines, statues, and the people. You wouldn’t believe the people! Buddhist monks, rickshaw drivers, ‘guides’, tourists, security personnel, Hindu worshippers, and even living goddesses (but that’s another blog)!
Outside the city centers, we found the other four UNESCO sites as well as a plethora of amazing restaurants, shopping bazaars, and simply friendly people. Every Nepali person seemed genuinely happy to have us there and we were truly grateful to be in a country where we felt safe and comfortable as we hiked throughout the valley, discovering hidden gems of tradition everywhere we turned. We were greeted and sent on our way with bookended ‘Namaste’, the customary way to say both hello and thank you (with much respect), that began in Nepal and was hijacked by Indian Yogis (much like Nepali electricity).
While the majority of Nepali people practice Hinduism, the Buddhist influence still dominates much of the Kathmandu Valley. Since the Chinese infiltrated and took military control of neighboring Tibet, hundreds if not thousands of monks – as exiles and refugees – have taken up solace in Nepal. They brought their religion and cultural customs with them.
Perhaps the most iconic image of Nepal is of the stupa. A stupa is a mound or hemisphere structure containing Buddhist relics, mostly ashes of Buddhist monks. Kathmandu has many, but two of the largest in the world are UNESCO sites: Swayambunath and Boudhanath. The former, also known as the Monkey Temple, sits atop a large hill just a couple kilometers walk west of Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. We hiked through the poverty stricken streets and up, up, up mountains of stairs (365) to reach the top. When we arrived, we found the Eyes of Buddha staring down upon us from the highest point on the stupa (four sets of eyes gaze out in the four cardinal directions). Surrounding this work of art were hawkers selling their souvenirs, monks encircling the shrine, tourists snapping photos, the sounds of peaceful, meditative chanting (Om Mani Padme Hum), and monkeys (Oh! the monkeys!!!).
Symbolically, stupas are built to represent the earth, water, sky, and the thirteen stages of spiritual realizations to reach pure enlightenment. The latter stupa, Boudhanath, isn’t high up a mountain. It’s surrounded by a town circle of shops, hotels, and restaurants, and at 118 feet, the stupa looms over the surrounding arcs of two and three story buildings. Other than being the largest stupa in Nepal (and perhaps the world), Boudhanath comes with a very interesting legend regarding its construction (approx. 8th Century C.E.).
Tibetan Buddhists of this region believe that there once was a living Buddha who lived hundreds of years prior to the generally accepted historical living Buddha (Prince Siddhartha Gautama) and when he died an old woman and her four sons buried the sage’s remains where the stupa now stands. The woman petitioned the king to commission a tower on the spot where her sons had begun to erect a foundation. Many who lived in the area marveled at the work this poor woman was able to accomplish with no one but her immediate family, however, they didn’t want her to finish. They asked the king to renege on his promise for the tower, but he refused, explaining that kings shouldn’t eat their words. Therefore, the literal translation of the name Boudhanath, Have Finished Giving the Order to Proceed With, refers back to this story.
Until Next Time…