Kathmandu, Nepal. If there was ever a place that invoked a sense of wonderment simply by invoking its name, this is it. The proximity of Nepal to India was one of the reasons we decided on a tour of Northern India, and we factored it into our plans for our crazy, 2500km cross-India trip that I covered in Parts 1 and 2 in previous blog entries. After taking a dip in the Ganges in Varanasi, the crack team of Joel Oleson, Neo (Majid) Favarshan, driver Ashok Kumar and I headed north to the border of Nepal, the mountain kingdom!
Because we are all slightly crazy (or at least Joel and I are)…we drove through the bulk of the night yet again. This final night drive was the most bizarre, however, as we passed through remote northern Indian villages in the inky darkness of the middle of the night. In the dark, we could catch glimpses of thousands of people in the street dancing and celebrating a festival as we slowly drove through. Their dancing bodies were reflected in the light of bonfires, the only source of light aside from our headlights. It was as surreal of a moment as you could get, and reminded us that we were truly in a different world here.
Spending the night as close to the border as we could, we woke early and made our way up to the border crossing between India and Nepal.
And made our way into Nepal! The border logistics were somewhat complicated, and there were various stamps and stickers we needed to get for the car, so we roamed around a bit in this border town, checking out the people and the sights. It was in this city that I sampled some freshly crushed sugar cane juice from an ancient gas-powered mechanical press. The vendor would feed full sugar cane stalks into the press, which would immediately crush them, releasing a sticky greenish fluid into a waiting glass. Add a pinch of some exotic spice and you have yourself an incredibly tasty glass of sugar cane juice, Nepalese style! My taste buds still recall this experience quite quite fondly…
Border towns are always interesting to me, as they share two identities. The people that live there are often an ethic and cultural mix between their two cultures, and this place was no different.
Being a border crossing, it was also the location of a great number of buses, heading out from the border into various areas of Nepal. And boy, did they ever pack these buses. If we didn’t already have transportation, I would have been very tempted to jump on one of these and take it to wherever it was destined.
After we completed our border logistics, we continued our drive into foothills of the Himalayas and towards Kathmandu. These mountain roads were treacherous, with all sorts of traffic heading up and down them. Incidentally, the unofficial rules of the road here and in India are that smaller traffic always yields to larger traffic, so if a large truck is barreling down on you in the wrong lane, you had better find a way to get out of its path quickly. This can be quite the experience on roads such as this, where one wrong turn means a plummet to your death. Indeed, not far into our drive in the mountains we witnessed a group of people operating a large hand winch, slowly raising a car back up the cliff after it had tumbled down.
As we kept driving through the increasingly large mountains and up a pass split by a large river, we noticed that there were multiple suspension cable style footbridges across the river, roughly every few kilometers or so. Our curiosity finally got the better of us and we decided to stop and cross one of these bridges, just to see what was on the other side.
Suffice it to say, we were quite the curiosity among the local children when we crossed that bridge. And what was waiting for us on the other side? A beautiful, car-free, pastoral village, complete with rice paddies and curious villagers.
In this village, with no visible electricity, no roads, and small huts, we met a local teenager who spoke English and invited us in for some Nepalese Chai (tea.) We chatted about the village, about Nepal, and about what we do for a living. Towards the end of the conversation, this woman from a remote Nepalese village asked us, “Are you guys on Facebook?”
It was at this moment that I realized that pretty much everyone on Earth is apparently on Facebook. Apparently she accesses Facebook from the local University, which is a walk across the bridge and down the road. We’re still Facebook friends to this day.
Late that night, we arrived in Kathmandu and slept in a hotel bed in the center of the City. We needed our rest, for we had just booked tickets to take a sightseeing flight to the highest mountain in the world, Mt. Everest! It was also at this point that we bade farewell to our faithful driver, who had driven all 2500km with us, and still had to drive another 800km back to Delhi from Kathmandu. We were taking the easy way back, on a scheduled flight later the following day on our way to Bangalore for the final speaking destination of our trip.
The next morning, we took our scheduled sightseeing tour of Mount Everest on Buddha Air Flight 201. According to the destination board, this flight was destined for ‘Mountain.’ Basically, what they do is take off from Kathmandu Domestic Airport, fly out to Mt. Everest, then fly around it in a few circles before heading back to Kathmandu.
Incidentally, you need to go through all of the motions of regular air travel to get on this flight, including getting boarding passes, passing through security, and waiting at the gate in the regular terminal. Once onboard, there is even a flight attendant! Quite an interesting flight.
Of course, it’s not the same as climbing it, but even from the window of an airplane, Mount Everest (a.k.a. Chomolungma, a.k.a. Zhumulangma Feng, a.k.a. Sagarmatha) is an amazing sight. At 8,848 meters (29,029 ft) high, the peak was at the same approximate altitude of our airplane.
Snow-covered and imposing, Mt. Everest is an amazing sight, it really does form the rooftop of the world. During the flight, the pilots even allowed us into the cockpit to give us a personal tour of the surrounding peaks.
After we returned to the airport, our last destination in Kathmandu was a visit to the Boudhanath Stupa, a 1500 year old Buddhist Stupa that is one of the most sacred places for Tibetan and Nepalese Buddhists.
A stupa is a mound that is used to house holy relics…originally items belonging to the Buddha himself or his ashes after he was cremated.
This particular stupa is surrounded by prayer wheels, and was actively visited by Buddhist devotees when I was there. Many of them were Tibetans, as there is a large Tibetan community here that left Tibet during the 50’s.
The stupa is surrounded by the city itself, and there are no shortage of gift shops selling Buddhist merchandise, Nepalese flags, and the like. In short, there is a touch of tourist fever here, but nowhere near as bad as what you’d experience elsewhere, and the fact that the vast majority of tourists here were non-Western was a plus in my eye.
Which brings us to the end of our 2500km journey traversing the deserts of Rajasthan, roaming the marble hallways of the Taj Mahal, swimming in the sacred waters of the Ganges, and gazing at the slopes of the world’s highest mountain.
If I could do it again, I wouldn’t change a thing. Yes, there are many different ways to experience this area of the world, and our trip was exhausting at times, but it was also filled with some of the most fascinating people, places, and experiences. I will return again, for this area of the world calls to me.