The time had come for us to embark on a segment of our journey we have been anticipating for a while: Nepal and the mighty Himalayan Mountains. To say we were a bit anxious about some of the aspects involved might be an understatement. We had heard tales of lethal Kathmandu tapwater and unsanitary food conditions, and we worried whether our soft sea-level bodies could adapt to the strenuous high-altitude conditions of our upcoming trek. Could we stay healthy enough in our short time here to make it worthwhile?
Some of these questions would have to wait – before going high into the mountains we first had a few days in and around Kathmandu to sightsee (and get a bit of time at at a mile high, at least). Our entire itinerary in Nepal from arrival to departure had been arranged by a tour company – More Than Mountains – recommended by some fellow globetrotters Josh and Liz who we met in Vietnam. This level of service was a first in our experience but as Nepal was both wholly new for us and centered around a specific goal (seeing the Himalayas), we opted for the guided visit.
More Than Mountains is headed by Jagat Man Lama – with nearly a half-century of experience guiding – and his son Barun. Barun met us at Kathmandu Airport after we worked our way through the interestingly archaic immigrations and brought us to our hotel in the Thamel district of Kathmandu, the center of commercial and tourist activity. This was at night however, so our first real look at Kathmandu wasn’t until the following morning when Barun picked us up for some local sightseeing.
This day and the following drove home a consistent message: Kathmandu Valley is a tough place to live. The low lying city, with very few buildings higher than five stories, sprawls along narrow and uneven streets, many unpaved, dusty one moment and muddy the next. Immense water resources flow down from the hills only to be quickly contaminated before reaching the demand. Monsoon season makes travel nearly impossible, and earthquakes – or more specifically in recent history, the Gorkha Earthquake in 2015 – makes life, buildings, and infrastructure fragile entities. Financial support, be it aid money or local funds, sadly often gets diverted before reaching its destination.
Our first visit was to Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square. Barun walked us into the historic area and then later into the historic commercial district. The World Heritage site of Durbar was sadly torn apart in the earthquake and several of the central temples are significantly damaged, with repairs only progressing slowly and arduously. We saw the first of many quake-damaged buildings shored up with external timbers and still occupied by businesses and tenants – a sight that repeated itself over and over. The citizens of Kathmandu persevere and life goes on without complaint.
We visited a couple other areas in Bhaktapur including the Nyatapola Temple and a pottery district. After lunch we tried some of the famous local yogurt (I even tried it – pretty good!). From Bhaktapur we headed up into a hillside area called Nagarkot, for a bit more time at elevation and hopefully some good mountain views. We stayed at a very nice place on an overlook over the valley below though but the mountains beyond were obscured by clouds.
We stayed for a couple nights and did catch a couple exciting glimpses of the Himalayas, and caught a break in the rain to take a walk through the hillside and see some local farms. Walking back we bumped into groups of adorably friendly kids heading downhill from school, smiling and greeting us with “Namaste!”.
After our hillside retreat we headed back down to Kathmandu, two days yet until we were to head into the mountains. We visited a few more historic sites – the ancient Hindu temple of Changu Narayan, the huge Buddhist stupa of Boudhhanath, and the busy religious site of Pashupatinath.
Elaine was feeling under the weather so it was only Barun and myself visiting the latter two. Pashupatinath is a uniquely Hindu scene – this riverside temple complex is where all of this faith who pass away are brought for their funeral and cremation. These ceremonies are constantly ongoing, with different areas set aside for the more prestigious. Barun and I watched a couple unfolding on the opposite bank while on our side other visiting devotees performed rituals for health, luck, and success.
Contrasting with the energized colors and activity of Pashupatinath, Boudhhanath is a massive and serene stupa structure where Tibetan prayer flags flutter quietly in the breeze. This structure, like most, was damaged in the earthquake but has been wholly repaired. Here bronze prayer wheels and mute-toned incenses take the place of neon gulal powders and offerings. Seeing the two sites back-to-back was a great way to get a feel for these two intermingling cultures that stitch Nepal together.
So – this brought us to our last night before our Himalayan trek! And, unfortunately, Elaine was not feeling well at all. Her light fever was worsening and she hadn’t eaten much. We packed our gear with growing trepidation – would we actually make our flight up to our starting point? Overnight her fever grew even more severe and I was getting pretty sure this wasn’t going to happen… but finally, after midnight, the fever broke – by morning she was much better, though of course rather tired. And off we went! Next post: all about the mountains!