Thursday, 06 September 2018

Travel Story – What an amazing trip I had

Nepal is perhaps one of the best countries that I have visited. It has everything, from amazing natural diversity, wildlife and cultural ethos to the awe-inspiring Himalayas. Nepal is a country of many wonders with treasures that never fail to amaze and inspire me. Recently, I had the chance to visit Nepal. As much as Nepal Treks are fun, this time- I wanted to really dive deep into the historical and cultural aspects of the country. After all, Nepal has ten UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and despite its growing modernization in places like its capital Kathmandu and other major cities, the tenor of cultural spirit is still alive and thriving in almost all corners of Nepal- sometimes even mingling along with the rapid growth of cities and their rapid in-migration. Read my complete travel story to know Nepal’s highlights better way.

Speaking of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal is like any other, always bustling with life and energy and chaotic pandemonium. When I arrived at the Tribhuwan International Airport in Kathmandu, I was greeted by my guide. I had decided to take the aid of a local Travel Agency who assisted me in my touring endeavor. Nepal Hiking Team my travel agency, had arranged for a guide for me to pick me up from the airport and with my Hotel transfer.

Going a little sideways with my continuality here, but I would definitely recommend hiring a local travel agency while visiting Nepal, especially if it is your first time. It can be a daunting task to visit a new country, and Nepal is no exception. That is why hiring a travel agency is always beneficial. They arrange everything for you, leaving you with free time to do as you please instead of worrying about permits, transport or even accommodation and meals. That was the case for me as well with Nepal Hiking Team, who arranged and planned my trip brilliantly.

Kathmandu

First on my tour list was the heritage sites of Kathmandu itself. A bit about Kathmandu before we delve into its cultural and historical treasures; Kathmandu is the largest city of Nepal, with a population of about 1.5 million people. Historically termed as “Nepal Mandala”, Kathmandu has been the home of Newari culture since medieval times. The Newari culture is definitely seen in various aspects f the city, from temples, architectural style of buildings, food and even celebrations and festivals. The historical sites of Kathmandu manifest the Newa architecture quite beautifully. Moreover, Kathmandu has been, for many years, the epicenter of the Himalayan country. It has a multiethnic population, and has many Buddhist and Hindu religious sites, including the heritage sites.

As such, the Kathmandu city hosts four major UNESCO Sites. In the Kathmandu Valley, there are a total of 7 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The UNESCO Sites are distributed among the valley closely to one another. That makes the Kathmandu valley have one of the densest concentrations of UNESCO World Heritage Sites that are situated alongside each other. Within the city itself, the four major sites are the temple of Pashupatinath, the Swayambhunath Stupa, the Bouddhanath and the Kathmandu Durbar Square.

My first site was the holy Hindu temple of Pashupatinath. A major sacred Hindu temple, Pashupatinath is located on the banks of the Baghmati River. My guide informed me that the temple served as a seat of the national deity, Lord Pashupatinath. Inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list on 1979, Pashupatinath is a large complex with many smaller temples, ashrams and sculptures. When I visited Pashupatinath, I saw many worshippers about, many with bright red tika on their foreheads. My guide said that during the major festival of Maha Shivaratri, Pashupatinath Temple was swarmed by many pilgrims from all over the country, with many from India as well. I also saw many Sadhus in the temple, with their faces covered in ashes and donning bright yellow robes with matted hair. I was also informed that the temple is also where the Hindu people performed their sacred cremation ceremony by the banks of the river.

The pagoda style of the Pashupatinath temple is something that I was to come across many times during my tour. The beautifully crafted two level roofs of the temple are balanced on wooden rafters which are decorated with amazing carvings. With the atmosphere rich with burning incense, the temple was quite exotic and reflected the cultural beauty in the constant peal of its temple bells.   

My next UNESCO Site was the Kathmandu Durbar Square. One of the three Durbar Squares of the Kathmandu valley, the Kathmandu Durbar Square holds the palaces of the old Malla and Shah Kings of the Kathmandu city, along with many temples, old buildings and monuments along with sculptures and statues of Gods. Several buildings of the Durbar square complex had collapsed in the 2015 earthquake, and the renovation work was being done. Along with the old buildings, the outskirt of the complex also held many fine cafes and restaurants. The place was as busy as ever, with small vendors selling spices and flowers and shops of Thanka paintings and Nepali handicrafts that ranged from brass and copper jewelry to traditional Newari masks and Nepali paper Mache. The complex itself was beautiful. Despite the damage done by the earthquake, it is easy to see the wonderful Nepali craftsmanship on the temples and buildings of the Durbar Square. The tentatively ornamented doors and windows of the temples and the finely tuned and crafted sculptures of the various gods seemed lively. It was not hard to imagine how it must have been in the medieval times. The openness of the complex and being surrounded by such majestic culture and architectural beauty had me in a trance. The people going about their way, with the looming temples and the giant statue of the God, with flocking pigeons and the bustling atmosphere seemed to breathe life into the area.

After a quick lunch of delicious momo in one of the many restaurants at the Durbar Square area, I headed out to the Swayambhunath temple- also known as “the Monkey temple”, an ancient religious temple atop a hill west of the city. At the entrance of the temple, I saw three giant statues of Buddha, all decorated quite beautifully, along with gumbas and smaller stupas which were also quite elaborately decorated and painted in the most intricate colors. My guide told me that each morning before dawn, hundreds of Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims ascend the long steps from the eastern side that lead up the hill and begin a series of clockwise circumambulations of the Stupa. After I had climbed the steps up to the Stupa myself, I was rewarded with the most breathtaking sight of the panoramic city, which seemed to be alive.              

After a tour of the temple complex, my next destination was the Bouddhanath Stupa. As I was in the car being driven to Bouddha, I also got a chance to experience the hectic traffic of the city; it truly is quite fascinating! Bouddhanath is the largest Buddhist Stupa in Nepal. When I reached Bouddhanath, the beautiful dome of the Stupa loomed up in front of me like a giant. The sire of the Stupa was decorated with many colorful prayer flags and the serene eyes of the Buddha looking out in four directions were quite majestic in the evening sun. The sparse distribution of the twilight clouds above the Stupa gave off a tranquil feel to the whole place. There were many people around here as well, sitting by on the base of the Stupa and enjoying the evening with family and friends. It was a lovely site to end my first day of the tour.

Pokhara

My tour of Nepal continued with my next destination- Pokhara. The lakeside city of Pokhara is said to be the tourism capital of Nepal, and it is not difficult to see how so. The city is located right next to the beautiful Phewa Lake, and is also quite close to the Annapurna Himalayan range whose majestic sights I saw as I entered the city. Many prefer to drive to the city, but my agency had arranged for a flight to Pokhara from Kathmandu, which took about 20 minutes.

Pokhara is often the starting point of many Annapurna Treks, and thus, you can see lots of tourists in the city, especially around the lakeside area which is riddled with various restaurants and shops catering to tourists. Furthermore, there are also numerous temples and gumbas in the city, with many temples serving as combined places of worship for both Hindus and Buddhists, much like the Swayambhunath in Kathmandu. One of the first places that I visited in Pokhara was the Bindhyabasini Temple, followed by the World Peace Pagoda, a.k.a. “the Shanti Stupa”. I got a beautiful panoramic view of the Annapurna range, Pokhara city and Phewa Lake from the pagoda.

Pokhara had many attractions as well, like the Mahindra cave and the Davis Fall. The all natural setting of Pokhara contributed to its large influx of tourism, both from within the country and outside. During the evening, I leisurely strolled around the lake side area, enjoyed a tranquil boat ride on the lake and visited the Tal Barahi temple- which is located right in the centre of the Phewa Lake. I had the constant view of the Annapurna range, and the beauty of Pokhara lulled me into a beautiful expectation of visiting Sarangkot- a vantage point near the city.

In the early hours of dawn the next day, I was driven to Sarangkot. I finally get why people fall in love with sunrises now; as I stood on the hill station at Sarangkot, I saw the rising sun from amidst the Annapurna Himalayas. It was majestic and I will never forget the moment. The panoramic view of the lovely Pokhara city also provided me with a postcard perfect picture.

Lumbini

My next much awaited stop on my Nepal Tour was Lumbini- a Buddhist pilgrimage UNESCO World Heritage Site. The birthplace of Lord Buddha, Lumbini had some of the most amazing collection of monasteries, each unique and artistically different from one another based on their construction by different Buddhist nations. I visited the holy Mayadevi Temple, and the Puskarini Pond. The atmosphere at Lumbini is that of a deep religious serenity, the monasteries are quite fascinating to explore, which I did on a rickshaw. I saw little monk children running around in crimson robes, and had a marvelous time exploring the complex. The heritage site captures the Buddhist spirit in its peaceful surrounding, and its various Buddhist art and architectural treasures.

Chitwan

My last stop on my Nepal Tour was Chitwan National Park- one among the two national parks of Nepal enlisted under the UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site. Famous for its jungle safaris, I knew that Chitwan was going to present me with the natural side of Nepal, and I was right! Presenting me with a wild taste of the wilderness, I experienced Chitwan’s wide expanses of natural landscape and woodlands. The lush forests of Chitwan National Park and its parameters consist of many wild animals and rare floral abundance along with ethnic villages and old traditional settlements of the local people. Perhaps one of my most memorable moments was riding an Elephant through the woods! I explored the ethnic Tharu villages and visited the national park’s animal breeding centers. With a relaxing and euphoric nature walk along the Rapti River, I was surrounded with the ambiance of exotic birds filling up the sound of the air with their chirping.

 One of the best times while I was at Chitwan was the Elephant bath. I got in the cool waters of the Rapti River and helped the elephant bath (or more specifically, got sprayed by the lovely creature!). The elephant sprayed a shower of water out of its trunk and I was in love! The excitement of playing with the elephant in the water brought out the inner child in me, and left me with a smile on my face and my soul feeling lighter.

Nepal really is a wonderful country with amazing features and beauties. It simply isn’t enough to visit it once, as the country has so many attractions and highlights that it demands more well-deserving visits. It’s natural, Himalayan, cultural and religious wonders make Nepal a cornucopia of exotic characters. And my agency, Nepal Hiking Team, did a terrific job of presenting everything in the most comfortable and amazing of ways!

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