Sat May 2nd, 2009 at 12:30:37 PM EST
If you want to see photographs from my trips to Nepal, please visit In search of Shangri La
When I was a child I together with my mom and sister visited Caucasian mountains. The sheer scale of jagged terrain terrified and excited me beyond imagination. I wanted to go further up immediately as I had desire to touch snow capped mountains. Mother and sister were suffering from altitude and did not allow me to venture there alone. Many years passed. I've found myself in Indian Himalayas, where childhood dreams came to pass. Yet I never visited Nepal. It was my dream to look at the highest mountain on this planet called by westerners Everest (after British official) and by locals Qomolungma or Sagarmatha, which in translation mean roughly the same, the Mother Goddess of the Sky. How she would receive me I wondered.
My first view of Everest (distant left) on the way from Junbesi
My friends and co-students in Buddhist institute, where I spent some time developing bodhicitta, discussed Nepal routinely, some had circumambulated the Kailas and not once, sneak in and out of Tibet. I preferred to concentrate on India, which I crisscrossed from Kargil to Kanyakumari and from Sikkim to Rajasthan over the years. However my first visit to Nepal happened rather unexpectedly last autumn. I was in the midst of preparation and submission of manuscript of Goan literary guidebook when I discovered that my Indian visa is going to expire. Return to Siberian winter at home to reapply for visa was out of question and I hopped on the bus, train and reached Indo-Nepali border.
Reaching the border was not free of trouble - after arriving in the middle of the night to Gorakhpur train station I chartered a jeep to the border in Sonauli. The taxi driver and his companion have conspired to rob me somewhere on the highway. After discussion they stopped for tea break and shocked me with demand of 5000 rupees for the ride. I thought it was better to take flight to Nepal for the same price so I refused to part with money before they deliver me to Sonauli and was firm enough to resist another stop, another round of threats. On the border full of police personnel their demands somehow were scaled back and though I paid 50% more than initially agreed I jumped to a cyclerickshaw and happily crossed the border.
As I found later October is not the best time to visit Nepal despite balmy weather and clear skies. Lured by the prospects of the greatest mountains on Earth tourists from all over the world have flooded the country as never before. In fact after liquidation of monarchy and the end of decade long Maoist guerilla war Nepal was witnessing surge in number of tourist arrivals, some 50 thousands dropped in only in October. My travel plans were hampered by necessity of finishing the work on Goan book and I spent a month hovering around the main tourist centres of Kathmandu, Pokhara and Lumbini (the place where Buddha was born).
On the border, in immigration counter, I met Belorussian guide Yuri who was going to Everest base camp with a group of tourists from Russia. He invited me to join in but I declined as I had already missed my book's deadline and was in rush to end the work. Nevertherless he came to see me in Boudha where I settled in a lovely Tibetan-run Pema guest house. It was his 4th or 5th visit to the country and he showed me all the best (and cheap) places in Kathmandu, except Thamel dance bars where he ventured once and was quickly overwhelmed by pretty nasty girls who wanted only his money. On situation in his native country he told me before he was taking part in anti-Lukashenko pro-democracy demonstrations. Once he was arrested and lodged in jail for 15 days, for intimidation purpose as he put it. Autocratic regime scares anyone who protests and warns that next time they will languish for years. He earns money shooting photo and video at weddings and functions, but recently he was invited to work as a guide for Moscow-based travel club so now he is spending more time in exotic places like Sri Lanka, Vietnam or Nepal than fighting Lukashenka regime.
Nepal that I was visiting was the country in transition. A year ago after first democratic elections in many years an age old Hindu kingdom of Shahs was abolished. I think the fate of monarchy was pretty much sealed in june 2001 when crown prince Dipendra allegedly killed his father king Birendra and all members of his family. Birendra's brother Gyanendra who took over proved to be highly unpopular ruler and even pro-monarchy parties like Nepali Congress turned away from him in the end. After elections minority Maoist government led by Prachanda (The Fierce) was installed. New government's policies were so far mixed bag. The country was declared democratic federal republic but Constitution is not in place, federal structure too. Maoists tried to infuse some discipline in the moribund government machinery, making surprising raids in offices in search of permanently absent bureaucrats. There is protracted UN-supervised process of reintegration and rehabilitation of Maoist rebel fighters. However problems faced by the country are daunting, especially on economic front. Unshielded (unlike India) from last summer dramatic oil price hike inflation in Nepal reached double digits in 2008. Infrastructure like power stations after so many decades of neglect is disintegrating. Daily power cuts for 4-8 hours last October reached 16 hours plus in February. In the country with 42% of population living below poverty line the social explosion is prevented only by maiden status of the government, which is blaming monarchy and old establishment parties for all ills. But this will not last for long, the trust is receding.
The views of Anjuna Shrestha who runs small budget eaterie Newar Momo restaurant in Thamel are typical for average Nepali. It was Yuri who showed me this simple place where portly Anjuna and her husband Dipendra prepare delicious potato momos, fish dishes (if you place order in advance) and of course dal-bhat (rice with potato curry, usual staple of Nepalis). Later (and especially during my second visit) I became frequent visitor to her restaurant (yes, and placing order for fish in advance). Anjuna is not in politics, but she has distinctive views on everything, from India to Maoists. Though she is not disappointed in Prachanda's government completely she is missing monarchy and is worried over quickly vanishing traditions many of which were associated with the royal court. She as many in Nepali middle class was hurt badly by rampant inflation. However she blamed India for inflation too, particularly Indian oil companies. I found that price of cooking gas was thrice higher in Nepal than in India, mainly because Nepalis were paying the current world price while Indian government shielded domestic consumers by subsidizing fuels.
So in this particular case it was probably not India's fault but in Nepal I discovered that many people in the subcontinent do not trust India, there is underlying anger over New Delhi paternalist arrogant approach. Such feelings shared by Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis and of course Pakistanis. Actually I was surprised after finding that many Indians consider the whole of Pakistan as some sort of breakaway rebellious region. Whatever I might think about Islamic state of Pakistan or its claims on Kashmir I would resent such Indian attitude if I would be a Pakistani. Nepalis in fact still resent trade blockade by India in early years of Birendra's reign. Nepal is the landlocked country and despite open border with Tibet (read China) in the north, it is still cheaper to bring bulks of Chinese goods through Kolkata. Yes, there is opened in 1980s Arniko highway linking Kathmandu with Lhasa but Himalayas if anything live up to its reputation of impregnable barrier between India and Asia.
In the meantime there were no views of lovely snow mountains anywhere I was. In hot Bhairawa on the border (where I stayed for long 6 days) I could see Himalaya as distant mirage only at the dawn after sleepless night of work. In Kathmandu valley there are no views and not because of pollution. Curiously in Pokhara at the beautiful lakeside you also cannot see Annapurna range, you need to undertake ardous climb to Sarangkot to have a look at fabled pyramid of Machhapuchhare (Fish Tailed) mountain.
As my month permit was drawing to the end I rushed to the border to Lumbini where Enlightened One, Buddha of our eon was born in sal grove in 566 BC. I visited three other main Buddhist pilgrimage centres in Bodhgaya (where he was enlightened), Sarnath (where he set in motion the wheel of Dharma) and Kushinagar (where he expired and reached nirvana). I liked Lumbini despite warning I received from one American girl, Andie, on the bus from Bhairawa to Kathmandu earlier. Andie was working for 6 month in one NGO in a village south of Kathmandu but with regime change attitude of Maoist government turned to the worse. So she was out of work and decided to spend some time traveling in the country. She disapproved disastrous Bush presidency, his horrible wars (I agreed with her), told me about monumental scale corruption which was going on with all these infamous bank bailouts and she noticed that Lumbini with garish temples looked like a Buddhist Disneyland.
If you would ask me to arrange forementioned four places I would put Lumbini on the third after Bodhgaya and Kushinagar and before Sarnath. In the latter not much is left, Archaeological Society of India, which is entrusted with upkeep of the Deer Park, is lackadaisical at best, taking 100 rupees as fees and doing nothing to protect visitors from nuisance of childbeggars. The proximity to Varanasi is also not plus. Kushinagar is lovely peaceful place with beautiful park, in rural wilderness away from civilization. Bodhgaya is the worldwide capital of Buddhism, it's amazing place, full of history and devotion.
Yes, Buddhist temples of different Asian nations are springing up in Lumbini like mushrooms, Korean temple is being built, others are more ready to accept visitors whom they entertain with gaudily statues set amid immaculate lawns. Still I enjoyed a lot cycling around fabulous forest of Lumbini (where I often was lost and once I almost had an accident with rushing motorcyclist which trying to avert encounter fell badly). In the middle of the forest there is simple red brick structure, and next to it a pool with turtles and very old tree with shrine underneath. The structure is covering the exact spot where Buddha first appeared. It's powerful place garish temples around notwithstanding.
So mission was not accomplished but anyway I found the way to Nepal and, no wonder, after three month Indian visa expired I was standing again in Sonauli immigration checkpost. It was early February and I cherished dreams of seeing mountains again. This time the way to Kathmandu was quite straghitforward and without hiccups. Almost. I forgot my mobile in a jeep from Bhairawa, but remembering the driver's name (it was printed in salon) and knowing the company's telephone I found him in Kathmandu. So far so good. Acquaintance with officials in Indian embassy is not the most pleasant experience. The application for visas is tedious and highly arbitrary process, the country which once was open to whole world now is vigilantly guarded by corrupt and inefficient bureaucrats. Such a pity they have all all applicants to wait for decision for a week or two.
However in every situation there is good side, this time unburdened by work I embarked on a trip to Everest...
See Mountains are forever (Part II)