Thursday, February 28, 2013

Nepal, part two

So where were we...? (click here for part 1) Ah yes, Nepal...

Sweeping view of the countryside on the road to Nagarkot Hill

Let's start back at Bhaktapur. If I were advising a person who could only spend one day in or around Kathmandu, I think this is probably where I'd suggest they go. Boudhanath was really enjoyable, but the Bhaktapur area was just enchanting in every way. The history, the splendid architecture, the local culture on display, the artisans and potters, the small cafés and roadside eateries... it was great. The one truly unsavory aspect was a section outside the main enclave that has sprung up solely to cater to the tourist trade. Much like any such place that exists only to serve tourists, it attracts all manner of beggars and hangers-on, and it became tiresome very quickly being besieged at every turn with exhortations to buy this or that. I only managed to keep it in perspective by reminding myself that, for these people, there simply is no other choice. This is what they must do to put food on their tables. So though that didn't make it less aggravating on the surface, it helped keep me from total despair. And to be fair, there were a lot of really interesting shops with all sorts of goodies for people who like such things... pashmina shawls, mountaineering apparel and equipment, crafts, lots of the singing bowls, and of course, an avalanche of typical tourist dreck – t-shirts, mugs, postcards, etc.

A typical scene of near-bedlam ensued everywhere
our group walked

An inviting array of soft pashmina scarves

For me, possibly the best part of Bhaktapur was Durbar Square, as I mentioned in the first post. I can imagine how it was in its prime, hundreds of years ago, crowded with people, bustling with activity and trade. Today, one of the standout buildings is the Nyatapola Temple, dedicated to the Hindu goddess of prosperity, Siddha Laxmi. Nyatapola, which actually means “five-storey temple” in the Newari language, was completed in 1702 and, at 30m in height, is a towering five-tiered pagoda-style temple that ranks among Nepal’s tallest. As you ascend the stairs leading to the platform, little carved statues adorn every step on each side. The examples of craftsmanship and architecture on display here are truly remarkable and it was a most enjoyable place to visit. We met some interesting Nepalese kids, had some truly delicious food (including the ubiquitous momo, a meat-and-veggie dumpling), and I felt it was really a treat to be there for the day.

Our café, at left, just beside Nyatapola Temple, Durbar Square

The famous – and delicious – momo

Nyatapola Temple, built in 1702

Detail of the figurines on one of the temples, Durbar Square

Another delicious example of what can only be
called Nepalese fusion cuisine

After our explorations in and around the city, we headed for the cool highlands of the Himalayan foothills. We were in a small tour bus and as we wound our way up the curving road to Nagarkot Hill, it was both amusing and appalling to see local buses – not only fully loaded with passengers inside, but carrying a couple of dozen extra on the roof, as well – careening around curves. Once we got to the top (2,200m / 7,260 ft.), clouds prevented any grand views of the Himalayas, but the scene was still pretty amazing. I really felt I wanted to stay longer, not just in the Nagarkot area, but in Nepal. However, on these sponsored trips, the price one pays for having everything provided at no charge is that there's a pretty fixed itinerary and a typically full schedule. Indeed, these was the case on my trip to Kathmandu, as we kept pretty busy for the four days we were there. It was really memorable though, and it's only because I've got so many other things to write about to get this blog even close to being caught up that I don't write more about the Nepal trip.

Near Bhaktapur

A typical residence in the countryside; as a family grows
in size, more levels are added

Near Nagarkot Hill

The stunning valley view from the road to Nakargot

I'll throw in some photos here (do be sure to click on them to see them larger), call it an entry, then move on. It's ridiculous that I've let the blog languish for so long. I'll try to be better! :)

To close, here's an excerpt from the magazine article I wrote about my trip to Nepal:

Nepal’s considerable strengths, however, are also among its liabilities. Landlocked, with exceptionally rugged terrain and few natural resources, the country has been plagued by poor infrastructure and even beset by political strife. That seems to be changing for the better, and though Nepal is a poor country, the country is making real strides, with the percentage of those living in extreme poverty decreasing from 53% to 25% in the last few years. As more channels open for tourism and trade, it is hoped that the warm, affable people of Nepal will reap the benefits and share in the bounty that visitors bring to this remarkable South Asian country.

As a visitor, it’s difficult to see such stoic, hardworking people consigned to a life of unending labor and poverty. It’s almost impossible to look past it, however, particularly on the streets of Kathmandu where the woebegone state of the country’s infrastructure is on stark display. At night, much of the nation is plunged into darkness. Only 40% of Nepal has access to electricity, there are almost no street lights – even in the city, and electricity isn't terribly reliable – rolling blackouts are not uncommon, though many hotels have backup generators.

Regrettably, too many in our world live like this. Travel is a very real way to not only bring our own tourist dollars to struggling people, but to help us appreciate the good things in our own lives that are often taken for granted. Nepal is a worthwhile holiday destination that will not only leave you with treasured cultural and scenic memories, but also one that will fill you with gratitude for the treasures you already possess.

Aerial shot of part of Kathmandu – note the conspicuous absence of roads