FASCINATING KINGDOM OF NEPAL
(Part One of Two Parts...click here to go to Part Two)

Story by: Larry Mayran

I wrote this two part story in the late 1970’s. I am presenting this travel piece as originally written along with editors notes here and there to show how Nepal and travel has changed since I penned this article almost 40 years ago. I had traveled around India and then flew to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal where I spent a week exploring the kingdom. This is part one of the story. The small, mysterious land (today it’s called the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal)  at the foot of the Himalayas had just begun to accept tourism after centuries of being a remote and closed country.  Part two concerns an aerial adventure in a twin engine turboprop to the highest mountains in the world, the Himalayas. Here we flew alongside the summit of Everest and other massive snow covered peaks, many over 25,000 feet high. Everest at 29,028 feet is the tallest mountain on earth.

Kathmandu, Nepal.-- Casting a mysteriously fascinating but deliberately aloof shadow across the Western world for centuries, Nepal is just beginning to enter the international travel market, seeking its place as a tourist destination. As an independent kingdom of some 50,000 square miles, situated between India to the south and China to the north. Nepal claims the title, “Roof of the World.” Within its borders the massive snowcapped peaks of the eastern and western Himalayan ranges boast eight of the tallest mountains on earth.

Map of India with Nepal in center upper right.

Tourism in Nepal is a comparatively recent phenomenon. In the modern sense the promotion of tourism here is hardly more than decades old. Yet its priority in the overall economic scheme of the country has placed it as the number one industry today. Kathmandu, its capital, is about 70 minutes away by air from New Delhi. Comfortably perched at 4,400 feet above sea level within the protective curve of 27 degrees north latitude. It shares approximately the same temperature enjoyed by Corpus Christie, Texas and St. Petersburg, Florida.

Of course the weather and altitude changes dramatically as you travel into the high passes. Here nature appears at its most spectacular amid the glittering arc of Himalayan peaks whose summits are covered by blankets of eternal ice and snow. The city of Kathmandu itself, founded more than  2,000 years ago is charmingly modern even by western standards. Kathmandu may be described as an amazing blend of old and new in its art, architecture, culture and the ethnic varieties of its people. The simple act of crossing the street may involve traveling back and forth through a couple of centuries.

There are many government recognized hotels in Kathmandu that offer all manner of comfortably stylish accommodations combined with attractive furnishings and air conditioning. Aesthetic amenities like well-manicured gardens, lovely trees, and dozens of gorgeous rose bushes are standard for the hotels which range from the five star Hyatt to the four star Annapurna, Shankar and Malla. The Yak and Yeti (love that name) is an equally fine hotel. Rates in the four and five star properties vary from $90 to $210+ per day…most major credit cards are accepted. There are also seven gambling casinos at the various Kathmandu hotels.

Merchants displaying handicrafts in Kathmandu Valley  with lots of bargaining for goods.

Enjoyable foods representing the culinary arts of many parts of the world, including regional Nepalese and Indian dishes are to be found in the principal hotels and popular local restaurants. Imported and domestic liquors and wines are available but expensive. The water in Kathmandu and in the Valley may be insufficient in both quality and quantity. So be on the safe side and drink only bottled water. Even avoid ice cubes in your drink. The ice may be contaminated. Your old friend, a cold beer might be an alternative choice. Never heard of beer being contaminated.

A Note on Dining and Digestion

While the temptation may be overpowering to sample Nepalese and Indian dishes like a trencherman at a Henry VIII banquet, word is, take it easy. The ability to coerce our stomachs into accepting impossibly spicy dishes and exotic local desserts without a forceful and possibly unpleasant after-affect is an unnecessary gambit that could possibly ruin a portion of your well planned vacation.

Trekking

For many trekkers, Pokhara is the gateway to the Himalayas.

Trekking in Nepal brings one close to nature while providing opportunities to see diverse cultures and ethnic groups situated along the rural trails and mountain villages. Our trekking organizer suggested an overnight trek into the Kathmandu Valley. He wanted our small group to get the feel of Himalayan trekking accompanied by proficient and genial Sherpa’s.  After a daylong trek with some spectacular scenic views and across raging rivers on swaying bridges we camped for the night. Other Sherpa’s who had advanced our party hours before were awaiting our arrival, had our tents already set up, and dinner cooking in large boiling pots. It was a simple dinner of rice and some kind of meat (I dare not ask what the meat was) and a few cups of chang. Chang is a Nepalese and Tibetan alcoholic beverage related to beer and made with barley, millet, and rice. It is boiled and then usually served at room temperature. (Folks, believe me, this is not your Mamma’s Bud Light beverage and its side effects after two cups can scramble your brain and equilibrium as well). The next thing I remember was looking out my tent at the dawn. It was 5:30 a.m. and the Sherpa’s  with broad smiles and greetings of good morning were bringing bowls of hot water and towels for washing up and steaming mugs of tea or strong coffee.

According to our trekking guide, one need not possess mountaineering skills or equipment to enjoy trekking. However those planning trekking activities should be in good physical condition, show some endurance qualities and allow sufficient time for acclimatization before venturing into the high passes.

Touring the Kathmandu Valley

The Kathmandu Valley provides visitors with many interesting excursions to nearby villages and shrines, each depicting a segment of Nepal’s 2,000 year old heritage. If trekking is not your bag, then you can negotiate a tour with one of the English speaking drivers who frequent the hotel parking lots. The rates vary depending on your itinerary. For example a tour of the “Ring,” a 25 mile road coiled around the Kathmandu Valley with touring, shopping, picture taking and picnicking cost us around $50 plus tip. Today I would imagine it’s at least double that.

Terraced plantings of rice in Kathmandu Valley.

Surrounded by green hills, the Valley is partly hidden at times by mist and woolly clouds. The countryside is lush with terraced plantings of rice. Snowcapped peaks rising above the valley floor are visible along the northern and western horizons. Patan City just south of Kathmandu is one of the oldest of the valley cities, formally bore the name of Lalitpur, meaning the “City of Fine Arts.” Narrow streets are lined on both sides with merchants displaying handicrafts of all descriptions and tastes. Bargaining here is just as much fun as it is fierce. At the end of the street is an ancient and massive Buddhist shrine called the “Golden Temple” after the colossal image of Lokeswor Buddha enshrined beneath the golden roof.

Close by is one of the oldest Buddhist monasteries in existence. Visitors are welcomed but only to the ground floor.  Towards the rear of the building I peeked through wooden slats to see a long narrow room populated on either sides by monks clad in saffron robes. Down the center sitting cross legged behind very low tables were shaven haired youths of not more than 10 -12 years of age shrilly chanting and responding to timeless Buddhist prayers. Punctuating certain passages in the ceremony were deep blasts from seven foot trumpets played by adult monks. Picture taking is tacitly tolerated, but one is expected to use tact, avoid flash when capturing the monks in prayer and to leave a few rupees in the donation box.

Bhadgaon offers visitors old world charm and a peek at Nepalese cultural life.
Prayer wheels in Boudhasnath where the faithful spin on every occasion.

Across the river can be seen the rich and ancient temple of Pasupati Nath, which is reserved strictly for Hindus. By climbing a winding path up a steep hill, you are afforded a neat vantage point with a commanding view of this magnificent center.  Your guide or driver will quietly explain the traditions of the Hindu faith and the meaning of their purification and prayer rites.

My driver provided me with an intriguing tidbit of Hindu burial customs. In order to insure eternal peace and tranquility for loved ones who have passed away, Hindu families bury their dead facing in a north and south direction or between the magnetic poles. An east west entombment might introduce a cross magnetic disturbance.

Budhanath located northeast of the capitol city boasts one of the largest Stupas (meaning from Sanskrit, Crown of Head) and is one of the oldest centers of Buddhist pilgrimages where multitudes of prayer flags and religious ceremonial items abound. Huge cylindrical shaped prayer wheels which the faithful spin on every occasion are stationed at the entrance to the shrine. They are stuffed with strips of paper on which the prayer “Om Mani Padme Hum” is written thousands even millions of times. Himalayan Buddhists believe that by endlessly repeating the prayer which roughly translates into “The Jewell in the Lotus” they can escape the cycle of death and rebirth and be conveyed directly to paradise.

Late afternoon is a good time to enter the medieval city of Bhadgson. Founded by King Ananda in 889 A.D. the architecture, wood carvings and massive pagodas consecrated to different Hindu and Buddhist Gods and Goddesses give graphic testimony to its tradition name, “The City of Devotees.” Located just nine miles from Kathmandu Bhadgaon breathes an air of old world charm and offers visitors examples of the cultural life of its people, past and present, who have been molded by the religion of Hinduism and Buddhism.

The golden gate in Darbar Square built in 1737 has been described by historians as the loveliest piece of art in Nepal. It is like a jewel flashing innumerable facets in the handsome setting of its surroundings.

Mala Kings Palace and Durbar Square, in ancient kingdom of Patan.

Wind up your touring day by exchanging your motor car for a rickshaw pedicab, a combination bike and rickshaw powered by the feet of a local Nepalese. Tell your biker you want the Malla hotel and when you arrive head for the Mayur bar. It was here I met Reggie Bowles, chief bartender, and he was among the most unforgettable characters I have ever come across. A few years ago Reggie passed on to his reward, but he left a legacy that remains to this day. Reggie was in the British navy during WW II and three times his ships had been torpedoed and sunk. Reggie vowed that if he survived the war he would travel to a place so far removed from the sea that the only waves he would see would be from passing friends. Reggie came to Nepal, married a Nepalese girl and became the first foreign citizen to be granted Nepalese citizenship. Behind his bar was an archivist collection of memorabilia, flags, letters, and cards from the climbers and trekkers that have passed through Kathmandu, many attempting to climb Mt. Everest, and other Himalayan peaks.

I had carried with me on my travels around the globe a commission pennant from my ship the U.S.S Glynn where I served during the Korean War.  When our ship was decommissioned we lowered the pennant, now old and grimy and gave it to the captain. Captain said “Give me a new one,” and handed me the original. I have carried that pennant with me and flown it from all manner of sea and ocean craft that I have taken the helm (steered or navigated) from the Amazon, to the Gulf of Finland, Indian Ocean, Sea of Arabia, Gulf of Thailand the Danube, the Aegean Sea, Mediterranean, Mississippi, and more. Reggie thought my pennant was worthy of a spot on the memorabilia wall behind the bar. So if any of you good readers travel to Nepal, and Kathmandu, please stop by the Mayur bar to see if my pennant is still there. Better still ask if it’s OK to retrieve it and return it to its owner, yours truly.

Next travel adventure Flight to the Himalayas and Mt. Everest...(Part One of Two Parts...click here to go to Part Two)

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