A year had passed since my last holiday. I had lost patience with the monotony of working in the virtual world combined with the sequential rainy days of winter in Hanoi (Vietnam), where I live. It was time to escape into the wild embrace of nature and reignite my spirit for adventure. I needed a place where I could take my true form with a backpack, sneakers, reckless abandon and unruly hair. I knew where this place was; it had been calling me for my entire life. On my 26th birthday, I booked tickets to Nepal.
A month later, after two flights and a turbulent landing, my longtime friend Laura and I arrived in Kathmandu. Unintentionally, we had arrived on the Nepalese New Year’s Day – the first day of 2067 according to their calendar – but we were still welcomed by our whl.travel local connections, Rajendra and Navin, who greeted us with a lei-like flower necklace and anointed our foreheads with the Nepalese tikka (a mixture of red dye and rice).
As they drove us to the center of the city past typical red-brick homes, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between Kathmandu and other emerging South Asian cities. Once again, I saw the blatant dichotomy between the rich and poor, as well as the same traffic insanity. However, the distant mountains were refreshingly different and imparted a sense of preserved isolation that I hadn’t felt before.
It wasn’t long before we were relaxing in the private office of Rajendra, seated at his large desk, that of the managing director and founder of Outdoor Himalayan Treks, our whl.travel local partner in Nepal. Looking at his crisp white shirt, one could easily be forgiven for not realizing that he’s actually an expert in Himalayan trekking routes. Orphaned when he was just eight years old, Raj independently took odd jobs to make ends meet and put himself through school. Afterward, he landed a position as a porter and then became a certified guide, the means by which he learned the various treks and finally opened his own company. It was in him that we put our trust as he knowledgeably designed one of the most incredible adventures of my lifetime.
At 6:30am the very next day, we left Hotel Utse in a rush to catch celebrations in the adjacent municipality of Thimi. As I whirred through the city on the back of Navin’s motorbike, I realized that Navin is a walking encyclopedia of information about Nepal. In Nepali, navin means ‘new,’ and, standing slightly shorter than me with kind eyes and a handsome face, Navin certainly brought a fresh, boyish and contagious desire to discover and learn new things. The early morning roads were clear as we neared Thimi. Along the way, Navin pointed out the industrial plants where the city’s ubiquitous red brick was processed, explaining that due to little regulation, the factories were now emitting vast amounts of pollution.
We arrived to Thimi just in time for the first New Year jatra, or celebration. Thimi, famous for its pottery, is a medieval city only eight kilometers from the capital. Around every corner, it has majestic architecture and temples dating from Kathmandu’s Newari Golden Age (16th to 18th centuries). However, this was no ordinary day in Thimi. At nearly 7am, the narrow streets were already full of hundreds of people ready to celebrate the famous bisket jatra – a procession of revelers throwing orange powder, carrying palanquins covered in Hindu deities and playing traditional cymbals and drums. Within minutes, Laura and I were tinted orange and indulging small children’s hunger to have their photos taken.
A short time later, after enjoying masala tea in a local spot, we mounted the motorbikes again and headed toward the famous adjacent city of Bhaktapur. A World Heritage Site and an old capital of Nepal, Bhaktapur has two faces. The majestic square with domineering architecture is breathtaking, yet undeniably touristic. But the back alleys, teeming with local life, are the real heart of the city. We listened to its rhythm as we watched women in traditional Newari dress line up at the wells to fill their canteens.
From Bhaktapur, we turned to Patan, another grand city dating from the Golden Age. At the Patan Museum, we encountered one of the best collections I’ve seen in South Asia, abounding with statues and paintings of gods and goddesses from ancient cultures. As we listened to Navin’s friend Rajkiran describe the various faces of Shiva, I realized that my college mythology course hadn’t even scratched the surface of the complexity of Hinduism.
“It is said that there are more gods in Kathmandu than people,” Navin said as we sat at a rooftop café drinking more masala tea and watching the sun set behind the Himalayas. As we looked out over the mass of overcrowded houses that was slowly swallowing the ancient temples, I couldn’t help but imagine the devastation that might occur here during a natural disaster.
A Leap of Faith
Back in Katmandu, Swoyamber, another friend and colleague of Navin’s, said “There is one more place I want you to see.” He took us down a side street away from the roar of motorized traffic and stopped in front of a large colorful relief of Shiva. Illuminated by candles, the statue represented Bhairava, the terrible manifestation of Shiva the destroyer. As people lit candles and laid their offerings before him, I realized from all the rituals and tradition in this country that the Nepalese people – the last census of whom reported 83% as Hindu – were truly god-fearing.
This thought resonated the next day as we travelled by early-morning bus to the border of Tibet to go bungee jumping. As we wound along the mountain roads, Navin pointed out a newly constructed statue of Shiva that, at over 43 meters in height, towers above the terraced rice paddies below.
The scenery began to change as we neared our destination and paralleled the Bhote Kosi River, which turned from a muddy brown to a light blue as we ascended further into the mountains. Navin told me about the massive hydroelectric power potential of Nepal as we passed a modern power plant. But in a country that falls behind Honduras and Senegal in terms of GDP, parts of Nepal suffer at least two hours of power outages a day.
After stopping for a lunch of the dal bat – the national dish of lentils and rice – we continued our climb southeast towards Dhulikhel. Clear blue skies were the backdrop of the verdant mountains ornamented with pristine waterfalls as the road coiled around and above a gorge.
In his song ‘Ma Marepani Malai Mero Deshko Maya Chha’ (Even If I Die, I’ll Still Be Loving My Motherland), Narayan Gopal, the most prolific and beloved Nepalese musician, wrote:
In and around this country of mine, the love for my homeland endures
Sons of the brave, my Nepali folks, the love for our ancestors endures
The love for our ancestors endures
Even if I die, I’ll still be loving my motherland
This heart is filled with a lot of love for Nepal
Seeing the pride in Navin’s eyes as we drove along gawking at the dramatic beauty, I was overcome by this beautiful country.
We pulled into the Last Resort – an ominous name for a bungee-jumping outfit. In almost no time, I was standing at the edge of a bridge over 160 meters above a vigorous river and staring out into the distance of the high-cliff gorge. After a nerve-wracking count to three, I leapt, and, after briefly flailing my arms in useless resistance, conceded and relaxed. Jumping off a bridge is a lot like walking out of your door each morning. You can’t control what’s going to happen and it’s a lot more fun to give in and have faith that a bungee will catch you before you hit the rocks below.