It is with a heavy heart, hosting a rather complex feeling that mixes joy, gratitude, sadness and despair, that I start to describe my two month long journey in this incredible country called Nepal. Sadness and despair are obviously related to the country's current situation, as a result of the devastating earthquake that hit the country in April 2015.
It is hard to describe such amazing experiences at some places that aren't quite there to be visited any longer. But the feeling of joy and gratitude is derived from having seen the best Nepal has to offer: its people. Kind and hard working people that will be back on their feet as soon as they can manage, to once again welcome visitors that might, like me, experience life changing moments in such a welcoming country.
As I write about specific places to be visited, I'll do my best to describe the sites the condition in which most sites find themselves after the earthquake. But in true Nepali mentality, I'll be positive and focus on the many remaining relics and natural wonders Nepal has to offer.
Kathmandu - Where chaos and madness smile back at you
Most travellers associate Nepal with its majestic Himalayan mountain range. Images of Mount Everest and the Annapurna circuit, must fill a traveller's mind with the idea of peace, nature and overall tranquillity, as they should, in all fairness. But most travellers visiting Nepal must start their journey on its capital city, Kathmandu - a scenario rather different indeed.
And I was one of them. I wasn't exactly sure of what to expect. Kathmandu is home to over one million inhabitants, most either Buddhism of Hinduism followers. It is over two thousand years old, and sits surrounded by mountains at 1,400 metres above sea level. Although beautiful nature is just around the corner, the city itself might not come as love as first sight to most travellers. But it was for me.
Kathmandu is, despite the overall chaotic conditions, an enchanting city. A nice blend of holy shrines, ancient buildings and narrow streets, hosting crazy traffic races, street vendors selling all kinds of imaginable goods everywhere, locals crouching on the streets sipping tea and people going on about their day in whichever activities keep them going. What is so fantastic about that, you might ask?
To summarize it: The smile on their faces. The acceptance of reality and ability to adapt that they carry. An overall sense of peace that can't be easily felt in cities filled by madness. In nearly two weeks spent in Kathmandu, I did not see a single traffic accident. I did not communicate with a single person that was anything short of friendly. They know how to live well under extreme circumstances, and that made me fall in love with the capital immediately.
Kathmandu's centre: Temple complexes, Dhal Bhat and Chai
Most visitors to Kathmandu will be staying in either Thamel Street, or in the Freak Street area, near the capital's Durbar Square. I was staying a bit further from both, but in fifteen minutes I could reach Thamel. It is in a way, convenient to the traveller because most things needed can be found there: numerous guesthouses and hotels, travel agencies, restaurants and fellow travellers.
But it felt to me like too much of a "backpackers ghetto", reminding me of Bangkok's Khao San Road, which wasn't quite the scene I was looking for. Freak Street was different. It received its name due to the concentration of "hippies" that used to hang out in that area decades ago.
It was much more relaxed and less crowded, with fewer touts and lower costs. It is the area where I had most of my delicious Dhal Bhat meals (rice and lentils, usually accompanied by a vegetarian stew, Nepal's staple meal), and shared a cup of tea with new acquaintances. I was surprised to see just how many travellers came to Nepal to relax, meet people and drink tea. I though 99% of the people would be trekkers or adrenaline junkies. I was wrong, and gladly surprised.
Kathmandu's Durbar Square was nearby, and I surely spent quite a few days visiting the beautiful ancient temples and walking around its nearby alleys, crammed with more buildings than imaginable. One of the oldest squares in the world, and an UNESCO World Heritage Site, Durbar Square had its share of destruction with the latest earthquake.
The beautiful Maju Deval temple, built in 1690, was levelled, unfortunately, but it was one of many beautiful ancient constructions that are still there, such as the Kathesimbu Stupa. Although I'm sure the captivating atmosphere will remain, travellers will no longer be able to take part in one of my very favourite memories of Durbar Square: climbing the Swayambhunath Temple's 365 steps at sunset. The temple complex was badly hit as well.
The Kathmandu Valley and other ancient cities
There are many villages or cities nearby in the Kathmandu Valley worth visiting. Whether for their nature, ancient squares or stupas (Buddhist shrines), it can keep a traveller busy for weeks. I really enjoyed visiting Bakthapur, only about an hour away from the capital. There, I had the opportunity of visiting a school and making new friends, which surprisingly, was yet more gratifying than visiting the city's own Durbar Square – much like Kathmandu's, hosting a complex of ancient temples.
Another city nearby filled with incredible ancient relics, is Patan. Although they all have temples with similar architecture, they all have a special atmosphere of their own. Patan hosted more than 1,200 monuments, including Hindu and Buddhist temples. Another loss to humanity, as it too was hit hard by the earthquake.
Although Nepal's three Durbar Squares (Kathmandu, Bakthapur and Patan) have had many of their relics destroyed, another very important temple in Nepal, Pashupatinath Temple, was not as badly affected, and the day I spent visiting it was indeed incredible, and very different than most other sites.
This sacred Hindu temple, is located just over five kilometres east of Kathmandu. Set on the banks of the Bagmati river. Its many ghats are used on cremation ceremonies, resembling India's ganges river in Varanasi. The smoke coming out of some temples by the river created a very peaceful atmosphere, and the sunset I experienced there was one of the most magical I have ever seen.
Next on my list of nearby sacred sites to visit, was Boudhanath. Aside from the Great Stupa, one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world (which was partially destroyed), this important place of pilgrimage hosts a real Tibetan atmosphere, and observing locals and Tibetan monks performing their rituals going around the stupa was a real treat. The entire area, containing over 30 different Tibetan Monasteries and Nunneries, felt extremely peaceful, and a world away from Kathmandu, which was just about 7 Kilometres away.
Just before slowly making my way out of the capital surroundings, I decided to spend a day hiking in the Bhaisenpati villages. All I had to do was to take a 40 minute bus ride from the city centre, and soon after, I found myself on an entirely different world. I started hiking through rice paddy fields amongst an incredible mountainous landscape, and could hardly believe what my eyes were seeing. It was, after all, my first time outside of the city environment, so this was just my introduction to the wonders of hiking around Nepali villages.
As I cut through the small villages of Chobar and Khokana, I was extremely pleased tp see how friendly locals were, reacting with enthusiasm to seeing a foreigner in their area. Locals were working on crafts and going on about their normal day in the simple rural village. Everything looked rather basic, but their smiles were priceless. It was a perfect last day in the Kathmandu Valley.
A different, but still precious, Nepal
Ancient relics may be partially gone, but Nepal's most precious gifts remain: Their people. Their nature. I wish I could say that they remain untouched or unnafected, but surely, such a traumatic event put their citizens through a lot. One thing is for sure though: they will continue to be as kind as ever to every visitor that comes across.
The atmosphere in ancient areas that were partially destructed will certainly change, but considering just how brave these people are when it comes to fighting all the difficulties that come their way, I am positive it will be adapted into something amazing, regardless of having to let go of precious buildings that were such a central part of what that region is. The giving culture of Nepalis will not change, and everything about their culture that appeals so much to travelers like myself is more than enough of a reason to continue visiting their country.
And needless to say, the amazing nature that blesses that region will still be there, with its beautiful mountain valleys, hosting marvelous hiking opportunities and unforgettable experiences. Travellers looking for distinguished travel experiences need Nepal. And right now, more than ever, Nepal needs travelers. Despite of all the difficulties, they are working hard and will soon be back on their feet, and I cannot wait to return to one of my favourite countries in the world.