To experience Nepali life off the tourist trail, head to the one-lane town of Nuwakot, a four-hour bus ride northwest of the overcrowded alleys of Kathmandu and an easy detour on the way to the popular Langtang trek. Terraced rice paddies, pumpkin plots, and mango trees surround the peaceful Himalayan village. In the center of town, an 18th-century palace and an ancient Hindu temple are built in the traditional brick-and-wood style of the Newars, the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley. On the palace grounds, look for the elaborate door and window carvings as well as statues of Hindu gods in the wildest sexual positions imaginable. Around the corner at the pagoda-style temple, receive a blessing from the Brahman priest. Ask locals where to grab the best meal and you might get invited home to share their handcrafted rice beer, called thon, and a plate of spicy buffalo lung and goat brains—a surprisingly delicious change from Nepal’s standard rice-and-lentils fare. In the evening, relax at the Famous Farm (shown), a newly opened inn and organic garden. With hurricane lamps and handwoven blankets in each room, the inn is a comfortable alternative to the area’s usual mildewy backpacker guesthouses and glitzy five-star hotels. —Kate Harding Photo by Sebastian Meyer. This appeared in the December/January 2010 issue.
Steeped in ancient culture and tradition, Nepal is often thought of as a spiritual retreat in the heart of the Himalayas. Tourism flourishes in Nepal, as adventurers and intrepid climbers brave the dramatic landscape and connect with the cultural soul of the place. Travel can be a challenge, with altitudes more familiar from plane flights than hikes.
If you find yourself in Pokhara, there's no doubt you'll hear about the sunrise hike to the top of Sarangkot to witness the morning glow light up the Annapurna Range of the Himalayas. With absolutely stunning views of Machapuchare, you're wise to take the advice. However, being that you must get up by 5am at the latest to make the sunrise, you might feel inclined to get back down and into your bed as soon as you're finished snapping your pictures and picking your jaw up off the trail. If you plan ahead (read: rest up) and go back slowly, you'll get to basque in the presence of Machapuchare while hiking down and through some amazing villages and terrain. Don't be afraid to veer off the mainline trail; as long as you're going down and you can see Phewa Lake at the bottom, there's no need to worry. With the Himalayas to your right and gorgeous Phewa Lake to your left, I don't think you'll be longing for your bed.
Tourists call it the “Monkey Temple,” owing to the clans of rhesus macaque wandering through the grottos and recesses of this ancient shrine. The apes climb where they please, siblings squabble, parents scold and protect—a parallel simian culture mirroring our own. The cinnamon hominids perch in niches, studying their hairless cousins circumambulating Swayambhu Chaitya, the whitewashed hemispherical stupa—or reliquary dome—capped with a golden spire and hundreds of prayer flags. The apes are believed to be progeny of Hanuman, who—like Ganesha—sprang from Shiva’s golden seed. The Lord of the Dance apparently tangoed with any species that could follow his kinky tune. As dawn teases the smog-shrouded horizon, I wander through time and space toward the Vasundhara temple with its eternal flame guarded by the goddess of abundance, inhaling a heady perfume of incense and flowers saturating the morning breeze. Every saffron offering is redolent with collective memory, every hand-polished and foot-worn stone a reified chronicle of the rituals and stories brought to South Asia more than three millennia ago by horsemen of uncertain origin. They may have come from somewhere between the Black and Caspian Seas, migrated east across the high passes of Central Asia, then steered south to collided with the already ancient settlements of Mohenjodaro and Harappa. The Aryans were not some master race of giant, blue-eyed, tow-headed Teutons, but they were, however, epic storytellers.
En route from Namche Bazaar, Nepal, we stop to visit the Tenzing Norgay Memorial Chorten. Norgay was a member of the first expedition team to summit Mt. Everest in 1953, along with Sir Edmund Hillary. While trekking in the Nepal Himalayas on our way to Everest base camp, on this day we enjoyed dramatic views of Thamserku, Ama Dablam, and the south face of Lhotse. If you are an outdoor adventure enthusiast, this trek is an amazing way to view some of the greatest 8,000m + peaks. And when you end up back in Lukla where you started, no matter what route you take, you truly realize what a great accomplishment it is to come full circle! Check one off of the bucket list.
I have an uneasy relationship with street food in South Asia. I've had my share of unfortunate encounters in India, and Sri Lanka, and I didn't want to add Nepal to my list. But after wandering Durbar Square for a few hours, I found myself famished. Afraid of what the cool climate and toxic levels of air pollution might be doing to the bananas hanging from shop windows, I went in search of something from the bottom of a big bubbling hot pot. Enter pink pancakes. Near the east gate to Durbar Square, I came across this tiny little stall and a husband and wife team working over the hot pan. To be honest, I'm not sure this is even a street stall - it could have been their house - but they were eager to share their foodstuffs with me, and I'm not one to turn down an invitation. We chatted for a little bit about life in Kathmandu and life on the road, exchanged handshakes and email addresses, and we carried on with our adventure. Nine months later, I remember very little about our time in the square itself (though it is a sight to see), but I can recall just about every detail about this man and his pink pancakes.
We weren't quite lucky to see the snowcapped covered mountains in the lovely lakeside village of Pokhara since we visited during monsoon season. But it was a perfect way to start our introduction to the area and cross over to the trail leading up to the Peace Pagoda. Pay a few ruppees, pack a picnic lunch and guide yourself around the serene Lake Phewa.
The ancient capital of the Kathmandu Valley is an earthy composition of ornate brickwork and wood filigreed temples built by the Newar tribe. In Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square; the relief carvings on the golden Suun Dhoka Gate, and stone images of the eighteen-armed Ugrachandi, elephant-headed Ganesha, and hawk-billed Garuda transport you back to an mythic era when India was the jewel of Asia. The Hindu caste system was once a pragmatic attempt to provide a stable social structure to an unruly population of wild, war-like nomads, and overcome those problems inherent in a primitive environment. But, like all human “solutions,” those who come out on top can afford to view it as a panacea. “In our community, there is very little crime,” says Gopal—a Brahmin, of course—with condescending pride. “Not like in your country. That is because we are a very religious people. We believe our lives are governed by the gods. So everything is already worked out for us, you see? We do not have to worry about who we will marry, or how many children we will have, because the gods will take care of that. If we have lots of money it is because the gods will us to have it. If we are poor, or of a low caste, it is also because of the gods. We always have someone to thank—or someone to blame. So, no problem! Everyone knows his place.”
I saw the first glimpse of them from the plane window – the rigid, snowy Himalayan peaks. They were practically at eye level with our cruising altitude; you could reach out and touch them as if they were the pages of a book. They looked beautiful and scary at the same time. They were so cold, hard, and barren; as if they were saying “leave us alone, you don’t belong here.” I was in Nepal to accomplish a long time goal - hiking the Annapurna Circuit. This 18 to 21 day circuit hike is full of ups and downs and eventually reaches the highest point in the middle of the trek - Thorung La Pass at 17,770 ft. The air is thin and the day I crossed over the pass I sucked up every ounce of air I could find. The peaks look different when you are eye level with them. They are more welcoming and less barren - maybe because you had to work so hard to get there to the pass - the peak finally said..."ok - I accept you." If you have an extended period of time the Annapurna circuit is a great adventure that you give you a thorough understanding of the Himalayas and the various village cultures that dot the trail. Your life is simplified for a month and you learn to appreciate the necessities - food, water, friends - and air. More Information: Get a great account of what to expect from the circuit in this free ebook about a father-daughter Annapurna trek. http://www.ottsworld.com/blogs/tiger-balm-tales-e-book-annapurna-circuit-with-my-father/
Every sunrise at Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu brings along with it the sound of ringing bells and Mantras, the smell of incense, the spinning or prayer wheels, and woven in between it all, thousands of pigeons. Buddhist practitioners feed pigeons seeds every morning as offerings to acquire good karma, the watchful eyes of Boudhanath Stupa looming just behind the frantic yet calming scene of people and feathers. Situation in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu, Boudhanath offers travelers a look into the Tibetan Buddhist way of life and is on of Buddhism's holiest sites (and also an UNESCO World Heritage Site).
Pokhara, Nepal is the starting point for many treks to the Annapurna Himalayas as well as other adventures including paragliding. The day was all around amazing, riding the van up the side of the mountain on hairpin turns, strapping into the harness, running off the side of a cliff, and instantly getting transported to the views of the valley and mountain range. The day could not have been better, the views were honestly one in a million.
Of all the cities in the Kathmandu Valley, my favorite was Patan mainly because there was traditional Nepalese arts and handicrafts was on display everywhere. When I mean everywhere, I mean everywhere….on walls, stairs and steps, building facades, rooftops, pavement, benches and even in downspouts. Walking through Patan was like walking through an outdoor museum; I found my head spinning up, down and all around trying to take it all in. Of everything that I saw in Patan, this beautiful silver and brass lintel, which hung above an entry at the Golden Temple (Kwa Bahal), was my favorite. The piece is a beautiful example of repousse work which is a method where the metal is shaped by hammering from the reverse side to form the raised design on the front. Each of the Buddhas is depicted with their hands in different ritual poses (mudras); the center Buddha is depicted posing with what is commonly known as the “earth witness” mudra. Kwa Bahal is a Buddhist monastery that dates back to the 12th century. It’s worth a visit if you like to see some fine examples of Nepalese religious art. The monastery building itself is embellished with intricate wood carvings and there are many artistic pieces scattered around the monastery’s courtyard. From Patan’s Durbar Square, it’s a very short walk to get to the monastery though its entrance is inconspicuous. Keep your eyes out for the pair of decorative stone lions that guard it.
On the second day of our trek to Poon Hill in the Annapurna Sanctuary, my friend Brill and I stumbled upon this absolutely gorgeous waterfall pulsing through a deep, green canyon. It was the early morning--about 7:30 when we first got to the river and it was quite cold outside. About 53 degrees cold. And then we dipped our feet into the water and it was quite cold. About 53 degrees cold. Yet somehow, after much heated discussion, Brill and I established that jumping into this waterfall was quite simply something we had to do. Forget the frigid water, forget the frigid air--we didn't come to Nepal to stay warm and safe and dry. So I stripped down to my board shorts and hopped up on the little ledge on the right. I dropped to the ground and pumped out 20 pushups--doing whatever I could to jack up my body temperature. And then I jumped. The water was ice. Absolutely freezing. I surfaced immediately and stroked hard for shore. Adrenaline ripped through my veins. After about 20 seconds, I stumbled onto land--swearing loudly, cursing the brutal cold, laughing at my shaking hands. And I felt so darn alive.
In a span of one week, my husband and I went from escaping the hot humidity of the Gulf of Thailand, to climbing through the thin chilly air up to Renjo La Pass that sits at 17,500 feet in the Everest Region of the Nepalese Himalaya. Since Mount Everest’s is as one might say, “a land in the clouds,” the weather is perpetually fickle and many visitors to Sagarmatha National Park won’t even get a glimpse of the peak through the thick and stormy clouds that crash into the mountain top and pour down it’s ridges. During our trek through Sagarmatha I wasn’t trying to fool anyone, I was desperate for a perfect view of the tallest mountain in the world and I was not going anywhere until I had one. Fortunately for me (or more for my husband), I didn’t have to shout my proclamations for too long; the view came at the top of our very first pass. Towards the final steps of our trek to the top of Renjo La, we could see that the weather was going to be gracious to us for the slightest moment. The vibrant prayer flags were blowing in the wind as the clouds parted around this section of the mountain range and she was in perfect panoramic view, Mount Everest. This was the only time we were able to have a perfect view of Mount Everest in a two week span and I will be forever grateful for this moment!
We were lucky enough to be in Kathmandu, Nepal for a Full Moon festival. At sunset, the monks lit thousands and thousands of little butter candles around Bodnath Stupa. We sat at a roof-top restaurant while they did the lighting (where this image was taken.) It was simply magical! The smoke from the candles gives everything a hazy glow. Afterward, we went down and walked around the stupa, spinning prayer wheels, and making donations to the monks, who were sitting around the base of the stupa collecting. We tried planning a second trip there for a full moon, but while we were there they did not light the candles. They did have a huge protest regarding the Chinese in Tibet, however.
The ancient buildings of Durbar Square are interesting enough on their own, but what fascinates me is the way people interact with the old and ancient in Kathmandu. We came upon this stunning stone monument, and sat in to listen to a monk explain its significance to passers by. Sadly, I have no idea what language the monk was speaking, so I can't tell you exactly how significant this wall really is. When he finished speaking, the monk approached us and encouraged us to light a candle and place it at the base of the wall. We joined the rest of the folks and felt a little more connected to the space, despite the fact that we had no idea what was going on. But that's alright. From time to time, a bit of blissful ignorance goes a long way.
For stunning Himalayan views, hire a canoe and row across Pokhara's Phewa Lake before sunrise. There are usually plenty of eager locals at the boats docks who are more than willing to row you around the lake and position your canoe in just the right picture-taking spot. The reflections in this mirror-like lake are spectacular and only available in the morning. Plus, sunrise may be the only time of day you'll be able to see the mountains before the clouds roll in. So, set your alarm and drag yourself out of bed to see the Himalayas light up in the rising sun. Afterwards, reward yourself with a very delicious plate of Eggs Benedict and coffee at the very strategically located Mike's Breakfast, beautiful lake views included.
Pokhara is a city in western Nepal that sits in a strikingly beautiful valley. Lush jungles and lakes give way to icy peaks that rise over 8000 meters into the sky. It was in this magical place, that a friend and I began our 10 day trek into the Annapurna Sanctuary. The hike takes you into the heart of the Himalayas and has you spending your nights in village teahouses, interacting with locals and trekkers from around the world. The people are extremely hospitable and the scenery is unparalleled. I shot this particular photo on the shores of Phewa Lake. Pokhara runs along its eastern shore, and this particular spot marks a popular boat tour, where locals will paddle people out to an island temple. I was fascinated by the brilliant colors, the cloudless sky, the distant peaks, and the quiet man with his umbrella. Nepal is a country worth visiting, and Lonely Planet provides excellent books on trekking here. In addition, we bought a National Geographic adventure map that detailed our route.
Tihar happens once a year, and if you happen to be visiting Kathmandu during this festival (roughly October), figure out how to make your way up to a rooftop and watch the city light up. Firecrackers and children's laughs ricochet off the buildings down below as the sky above lights up with firework displays launching all across the city.
Although you wake up at the crack of dawn to see the moutain range at its clearest, it's well worth the early morning haul to the airport. There are several local airlines that will take you on a small plane on a one hour round trip flight from Kathmandu alongside the Himalayan range to Mt. Everest. The plane I went on was 8 seats, so everyone got a window. The pilots called the passengers to the cockpit one a a time to take in the entire view. It's an amazing experience to hear "We are flying at 30,000 feet," and to be able to look out the window and see mountains at the same height. This is a picture of the Himalayan range from the plane window, with Mt. Everest int he background. It's so tall that the jet stream is blowing snow off the top.
I don't care for maps, and I don't often ask for directions. Suffice to say, I get lost a lot. As a travel photographer, getting lost serves me well. I got quite lost along Nepal's Hyangja Kot hiking trail, a fantastic track some 40km from the city of Pokhara. I hiked for a few hours through some of the most pristine countryside I have seen in my life, and came upon postcard-perfect views of rural villages and unending fields being tended to by hardworking local folk. I had a wonderful time on this hike until I reaized that I was so lost it would be four to five hours before I could return to someplace that sold food or water. I came upon this friendly woman tending to her crops and made her a deal; I would agree to carry her yield in exchange for a glass of water and some rice. I'm sure she thought my offer was hilarious (she was stronger than me after all), but it worked out in the end. She even offered me a place to sleep, though I had to turn that one down, for fear that if I spent one night in the hills, I'd never want to leave. I suggest you get lost the next time you visit Nepal. You'd be surprised to learn how many people don't.
During the holiday Holi, I visited a nearby Hindu temple complex. How holy of a "Holy Man" this man was, I cannot say, as he accepted "offerings" to have his photo taken. So as not to get the same photo as all of the other tourists, I asked him if he would slip away from the others to the other side of this structure so that I can get a different photo. With a strobe off to the side, I hope I captured something just a little different than the other tourists there. It took only three clicks of the camera and then a group of tourists were pushing in on either side of me. I paid the man and was off to find a crazy monkey or sacred cow to photograph. Maybe they wouldn't have so much competition for his attention.
The Kuna Islanders that inhabit the San Blas Islands on the Caribbean coast of Panama, near Colombia, are said to be a bit reserved and certainly camera shy. I did not find that to be the case on my visit to the islands. I found the Kuna to be outgoing and very sociable. Although the Kuna did not partake in my group's consumption of alcohol, they did join in on our festivities and volunteered to have their photo taken with our empty bottles. They were quite amused with the image of themselves on the back of my camera. In addition to sharing their islands, we were fortunate enough to eat locally caught seafood that they prepared and to purchase their handmade, vibrantly colored molas. Molas are colorful, knitted squares featuring abstract forms of nature and ideology. I believe the key to a positive experience with the Kuna is to interact and even contribute to their livelihood through purchasing food and handicrafts from them, instead of simply enjoying the islands and overlooking the people that have lived there for centuries.
I’m not really much of a shopper but it’s hard not to look at the stuff for sale, especially when there’s a lot of it and it’s everywhere. One of my favorite places to *window shop* was Kathmandu. There, the vendors not only display their wares on tables and shelves but they also use whatever surface they can place items on. Sometimes, items were simply placed on mats spread out on the ground. Other times, the display shelf was the ledge of a low wall. Often, items were hung on the side of the buildings. As often as I walked up to a table to look at something up close, I also found myself walking back to admire the entire lot as if it were artwork hung up on a gallery wall. Seeing the souvenirs displayed this way often gave me design ideas on how I could present all my travel finds on my walls at home. I came across this building and its souvenirs on the grounds of Swayambunath stupa. By the way, Nepalese has a long history of woodcarving so if you want to bring something back with you, think about something made of wood like a mask. You can’t go wrong!
I was rather shocked to see just how many people try paragliding in Nepal, but I guess there really is no better way to get up close and personal with some of the world's tallest peaks (save for climbing to the top of one yourself). The Pokhara Valley is stunning in and of itself, but from a few thousand feet above the ground, gliding along on gusts of wind, it is even more impressive.
In the moments before the sun disappears over the Himalayan Mountains for yet another day, wander over to Phewa Lake in Pokhara, cradled within the aforementioned mountains. British generals during the Empire's rule over the Indian subcontinent favored the lake as their summer haven from the mind-numbing Nepali heat. And the inescapable majesty of the mountain range does nothing to stymie admirers or adventurers! Pick one of the brightly azure-colored canoes bobbing on the shores for a lazy, meandering ride. Clouds glide above–some low enough for the peaks to pop up above them, others filtering the dying rays of the sun. Lights twinkling on from surrounding homes reflect on the shimmering water. Cool breezes racing through the mountains whisk off the day’s sweat droplets. Just as the sun slips behind a mountaintop, bank at the tiny island in the middle of the lake where Barahi temple honors Durga, the Hindu goddess for maternal love and feminine power. Here in the blue haze of dusk, receive your blessings for the rest of the night, the rest of your journey, the rest of your life.
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