We’re bouncing up and down in a rickety old SUV as it races down a dry, dusty road. As I look out at the fleeting landscape, I catch a glance at an elderly farmer, sweat running down his brow, leaning on his rake and staring into the distance. As I follow his gaze, I finally lay my eyes on them; there, amidst the rice fields and straw houses, are the mountains I came so far to see. The mountains most others only dream about.
Welcome to Nepal, where the mountain is the soul and the people are the heart. From frozen peaks to fertile plains, Hindu gods to Shaman rituals, brilliant palaces to golden temples, over the years Nepal has woven an amazingly diverse tapestry in full defiance of its modest size. The region’s earliest recorded history dates back to around 800BC, considerably earlier than the first time I heard Bob Seger belt out a tune about some faraway place called ‘Katmandu’.
The Valley of Museums
Amid trekkers with visions of Everest mirrored in their sunglasses and neo-hippies yearning to partake of the local herbs, there is another lesser known side of Nepal. History, religion, art and culture are so intertwined with each other they converge into the same essence, and perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in legendary Kathmandu.
Architectural delights dot the entire Kathmandu Valley, which consists of three former city-states that once vigorously competed against one another for political supremacy. Kathmandu, Patan and Bhakpatur all display works of grand exquisiteness, such as extraordinarily designed pagodas, temples, stupas and palaces. The entire area is sometimes called an ‘open-air museum’ as any stroll down the corridors of the ornately decorated squares will quickly confirm.
“The Mountain So High That No Bird Can Fly Over It”
In what must have been the best $200-spend in my life, I took an airplane tour to see the Nepalese Himalaya, circling mighty Mount Everest and then returning to Kathmandu. The plane ticket (Buddha Air) cryptically read. ‘Depart: Kathmandu – Arrive: Kathmandu’. I have never had so much fun not going anywhere!
The Himalaya are truly extraordinary. Viewed from the air, they look magnificent, domineering and terrifying all at the same time. An astounding eight of the world’s ten highest mountains (all but number two and number nine) are located in Nepal. As the nation has historically been fiercely isolationist, it was not until 1788 that any foreigners ever even knew about Nepal’s soaring peaks.
Remarkably, even after its ‘discovery’ by the outside world, another century would pass before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay famously conquered the mountain which so many here revere as a manifestation of the gods themselves. When it finally came into view, the audible gasps from passengers said it all. Like seeing the gentle flakes of a snowfall or the vast waters of an ocean for the first time, beholding Everest is one of the most awe-inspiring sights in one’s lifetime.
A Buddha and a Dream
As fascinating as Kathmandu is, a trip to Nepal should include its second most favorite destination, Pokhara, known for serene natural beauty and a peaceful vibe. Here, soaring mountains and placid lakes mingle with quaint streets and small shops. Pokhara’s laid-back nature can be explained by its traditional insularism – the wheel, for example, was first introduced here only the 1950s! Trekkers love Pokhara – Annapurna I, the world’s tenth highest mountain, lays a mere 48km (30 miles) away. Perhaps nowhere else in Nepal are the Himalaya more accessible.
After enjoying some quiet time in Pokhara, it was time to head for less-traveled Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha. Although my work schedule never permits me to trek around aimlessly for weeks on end, I did feel compelled to take the beautifully mountainous Pokhara-Lumbini route by car in lieu of flying, allowing me to take in breathtaking views and interact with the amazingly friendly people in villages outside the touristy cities. In this way I could also partake in the dangerous and thrilling ‘ubiquitous mountain drive in a developing country’ adventure where the only thing between you and certain death below is your tongue, which by now is sticking straight out of your gaping, screaming mouth. Every turn on the primordial roads is a harrowingly narrow and blind 90 degree affair, so that nearly constant blasts of the car’s horn, itself gasping and wheezing to catch its own breath, is the only hope for survival.
To go to Lumbini is to see a window to the future mirrored in the past. A major part of the city has been built up as part of a grandiose design to establish it as a heartland for Buddhism. New temples and visitor centers sponsored from every major Buddhist nation are rising from once-empty fields and historical sites are being made more accessible. For centuries, Lumbini was lost to the world and its noble grounds were only ‘rediscovered’ in the late 19th century. The most sacred site here is Maya Devi Temple, the exact spot where Siddhartha Gautama – better known as the historical Buddha – entered this world. Even as a non-Buddhist, I found Lumbini to be a special and spiritual place for deep reflection.
An Enduring Story
As we head back to Kathmandu I catch a glimpse at those magnificent peaks for one last time. Resilient and proud, like the generations of people who have lived in their midst; strong and steady, like the hands of the farmers who toil in the hot steamy fields; permanent and unwavering, like the spirits of those who braved the world’s tallest peak. The mountains are the beginning and the end of the story of Nepal, and its people happily fill in the pages in between. Despite a tumultuous political past and recent devastating earthquake, the people here, like their mountains, rise up to demonstrate that most impressive of all human traits: perseverance.
An avid explorer, John has visited over 60 countries, including the entire Far East of Asia, and speaks conversational Mandarin Chinese. Specializing in travel writing, he has been published over 20 times, including for the Straits Times, Shanghai Daily and Bhutan's national airline magazine.