At an altitude of 21,000 feet, you typically have a sense of omniscience; you can look down upon the world with power, confidence and knowledge. This false sense of superiority is laid bare by the Himalayas. From this lofty position, you are barely a peer to the foothills surrounding the true giants. The stark, jagged ridges and vast glaciers do not look like a world humans should inhabit.
Visiting Nepal is a visit to two places; crushing poverty that exists in the shadow of the most majestic of mountains. Kathmandu, the capital, is reminiscent of rural China or sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, the Nepali people have a well-deserved reputation for kindness and authenticity. As a westerner, you wonder what it must be like to work in the streets of the city, where the average yearly income is $500 USD, and see the rows of stores selling trekking gear that costs many times that.
Most visitors to Nepal are seeking the mountains (my friend Curtis would say that they are there to find God, even if they don’t know it). There are countless trekking companies to choose from, but if you don’t have weeks to sacrifice to your pilgrimage, there are a few short-cuts to catching a revelation of the mighty Himalayas. The most direct method is to book a “Mountain Flight” from the main airport. I hopped on board a reasonably modern twin turbo-prop from Yeti airlines, and resisted any comments about the abominable service; it was actually quite nice.
While there was some nod towards security at the airport, you can tell that regulations are a little less strict here. We were allowed to come forward to the cockpit for photos during the flight! The helpful flight attendant pointed out the highest peaks as we cruised past. Mount Everest, or Sagarmatha “Goddess of the Sky”, sits behind the others, an inner sanctum of ice and altitude.
The second way to view the mountains from Kathmandu is to drive up to a small hill (just 6000 ft above sea level) and watch the sun rise over the peaks. Of course, this involves driving up the side of a mountain in a developing country in the dark:
In North America, you would have a trail-rated off-road SUV, with 33 inch tires, a winch, and a half dozen extra lights to conquer the wild. We took this:
Cute, isn’t it? We scraped the bottom of the car on a few large rocks, but our little burro never got stuck.
Once we reached the summit, we climbed an observation tower. Like other adventures outside of the US and Europe, the lack of safety equipment takes me back to my childhood, when riding in the back of a pickup truck was a perfectly normal means of transportation.
The cloud that had obscured the sky for days suddenly lifted, and the tour guide urged me to shoot before the mood of the skies changed again.
He told me that for two months they had seen nothing but fog, and he was almost as excited as I was to see the painted skies over the mountain tops. Within just a few minutes, the clouds remembered their monsoon duties, diffusing the glow of the sunrise until it disappeared again.
Descending in the gray enlightenment of day, we could finally see the land we had sped through in the pre-dawn darkness. Terraced fields of corn and barley, subsistence farms, and empty power lines that only intermittently provide anything other than a blemish on the otherwise simple beauty of the valley.
We stopped on the side of the road, where a man was making condensed buffalo and cow milk, a common breakfast among the rural Nepalese. His grandfather had taught him the trade, and it looks like the method hasn’t changed in centuries.
Back in Kathmandu, we toured the many Buddhist and Hindu temples. Tragically, many of them were damaged during the massive earthquake of 2015, and those still standing are often supported by struts. The architecture is beautiful, and the intricate craftsmanship is fascinating.
One of the benefits of having a devout Buddhist as a tour guide is that in his drive to convert you, you have access to the inner workings of the temples. Leather shoes are not cool (wearing something made of cow parts here is like wearing kitten- and puppy-fur slippers in the US). We always toured religious sites barefoot, in a clockwise fashion, casually rolling the prayer drums as we passed by.
The first temple we visited, Swayambhunath or the Monkey Temple, is known for two things. The first is the series of 365 steps required to reach the site, one for each day of the year. The second is, as you might guess, the monkeys. They confidently strolled among the monks and tourists, and looked as if they owned the place.
There is an easy way to determine if you are in a local market or one targeting tourists; if the wares all appear authentically Nepali, or the T-shirts have slogans about Everest, Nepal, Trekking, Bob Marley or smoking hashish, you are in the tourist bazaar. If the vendors are selling “Name Brand” jeans, flat brim hats, or T-shirts with Nike/Adidas/ fill-in-your-brand-or-rock-band-here, you are in the local market. Ironic.
During the trekking season of spring and fall, many tourists are trustafarians from western countries, putting their parents’ money to good use by eating pizza and drinking beer in a place much more exotic than the usual places they eat pizza and drink beer. A majority of the tourists during the summer monsoon season are from India or China, so the local merchants target their audience accordingly.
Despite the earthquake that disrupted what little infrastructure existed in Nepal, the people I met seem to have a sense of calm and satisfaction with life that is uncommon in the west. Some of us might feel that having a damaged temple is a great tragedy, but this guy knows it is still a great place to take a nap until the rain passes.
Amidst the chaos and ruin, people seemed to be going about their lives, as others have done for millennia.
Overall, Nepal is a beautiful land of beautiful people, both filled with peace. I don’t think anyone could visit and not be moved by both.
Here’s a gallery of other images and observations from Nepal:
Early medical textbook:
Momos- tasty dumplings that are a local favorite. I tried the fried buffalo momos and they were delicious:
Hint of the hippie days before hashish was made illegal and all of the hippies deported at the request of the US State Department in 1973. Nixon was such a buzz kill!
This discerning goat peruses the market for the finest ingredients:
Looking for a crosswalk in Kathmandu: