After Bhutan, Nepal
Nepal and Bhutan are neighbors, sorta. They don't share a common border (India gets in the way) but they both border India on the South and China to the North. The northern border of each is dominated by the Himalayan Mountains. Here's a map to show their relationship to one another:
The history and current political environment of both are greatly influenced by their powerful neighbors.
But despite the similarities, the two countries differ in significant ways. Bhutan, predominately Buddhist, has until very recently been a closed society, insulated from external influences. Recently, it transformed itself, at the insistence of the Fourth King, into a constitutional monarchy and is beginning to open itself to outsiders, including tourists such as us and development, financed in many instances by India. India seems to covet Bhutan's hydroelectric resources.
Nepal was united by the Gurkha ruler Prithvi Narayan Shah about 250 years ago. He and his kinfolk ruled Nepal for not quite 100 years after which the prime minister usurped power. He and his family ruled for another 100 years until King Tribhuwan regained control in 1951. King Tribhuwan and his family began a gradual transition to a constitutional democracy. But the path has been rocky, marked by an unpopular constitution, reversion to absolute rule by the monarch, civil disobedience, the assassination of most of the royal family by the crown prince in 2001, open warfare with Communist elements, culminating the end of the monarchy in 2007. Peace was restored but an attempt to write a new constitution failed in 2007; the latest attempt is now underway but the outcome remains uncertain.
Nepal is a predominantly (81%) Hindu country with a minority (11%) of Buddhists plus other religions including 5% Muslim. While Hinduism is no longer the State religion Hindu beliefs and practices, including the banned caste system provides additional diversity. There are some 135 political parties, all of which makes writing a constitution and forming a cohesive and inclusive nation a significant challenge. Nepal is also one of the poorest countries in the world with an average income of $700 and an unemployment rate of 25%.
But yet, Nepal is a wonderful place to visit. The scenery is mind boggling even if you discount the Himalyas. Sure, travel by car is challenging. The food is great if you like curry and a bit of spice with your meals (those on a Western diet can get by just fine as Judy will attest). And you couldn't ask for a friendlier bunch of people anywhere. Despite all its problems Nepal impressed us as a vibrant, colorful and thoroughly enjoyable country.
When we get back from a trip people ask us, "Would you go back for a second visit?" Usually we respond, "Yes, but there are so many places to explore we're not sure we'll have time to make it." But with Nepal the answer is just, "Yes."
Photo Viewing Opportunities
So here are the bogs and pictures. If you've already read our daily emails or if you just want to see the pictures you can skip the blogs.
The pictures that accompany each email were selected at the end of the shooting day to illustrate that day's activities. They are included in the daily logs presented below, which are unedited (except for spelling and grammar). If you wish to view more photos you have the following options:
These links takes you to the Slideshow feature. If you wish you can press Escape to use your mouse and arrow keys to move through them one-by-one.
One final note: In selecting pictures to include here I haven't tried to "tell the story" of our trip. Rather, I've tried to select pictures that give the look and feel of Nepal. The blog gives the blow-by-blow recitation of our activities. And, Judy has put together a series of 10-minute videos that show what happened each day. You can view her videos at: http://judyrick.zenfolio.com/p180714573
Nepal Day 1
Four times I crossed the streets of Kathmandu, the last with over 200,000 Nepali Rupees in my pocket and not once did I get hit by a moving vehicle. That's an accomplishment! As we experienced in China, traffic laws here, even the directions of a police standing in the intersection, are treated at best as suggestions that are typically simply ignored.
Why 200,000 Rupees you ask? It's a long story but for good and valid reasons I won't bore you with here we have to pay for two weeks of travel in Nepal in local currency. So 200,000 Rupees pays that bill and leaves us with some walking around money. At an exchange rate of about 100:1 it's a great deal - less than one half of what we would have paid for a group tour. And we get to do more and do more of the things we're interested in doing. We're more interested in learning about the culture and history of Nepal; river rafting, zip lines and paragliding can be done anywhere.
Today was a work day. The alarm went off at 4:15 AM, at the airport by 5:15 with a hotel-furnished box breakfast; takeoff at 7:30 and touchdown (late) in Kathmandu at 9:30; greeted Jeff at 10:00 and checked into the Annapurna hotel ( much nicer than the guided tour hotel) by 10:30. Jeff went on to the Deerwalk office across town and we sent out laundry (returned by 6:00 - 30 bucks for a week's worth). The Deerwalk van picked us up and took us for a noon office tour and lunch with Jeff and some of the Deerwalk management team. Really fun watching Jeff at work as they discussed business issues that arose while Jeff was goofing off on the high seas last week.
After lunch Jeff went back to work and we met with the Deerwalk travel agency and met Paras (like the tower) who will be our guide while we are in Kathmandu. We'll spend 10 days in town, one at Nagarkot to see the Himalayas, one night at Pokara, a resort about six hour's drive from Kathmandu and two nights at the Chitwan National Park where we will ride elephants while searching for tigers. So that's all settled and we're looking forward to a fun time here in Nepal.
Had nice dinner with a jet lagged Jeff and are back in our room, doing our nightly chores of writing, video editing and file backups. Sounds like hard work but Jeff's the one to pity: it's 9 AM back home and he's got four hours of email and telephone work before he's done for the night. Globalization does take its toll.
Love to all,
Jon and Judy
Nepal Day 2 - On the Tourist Trail
Our day started out with a visit to Deerwalk where we unloaded most our Rupee horde and then met with the head of the Deerwalk Institute of Technology where I, believe it or not, am a Visiting Professor. It's about as close to a job as I have anymore. The school trains Nepalis to be software developers, graduating with a four-year computer science degree. Along the way students will do internships at Deerwalk. Upon graduation Deerwalk the company will hire the cream of the crop. There are currently about 100 students. The first class has nine students and will graduate in 2015.
We've arranged for me to talk with all of the students next week. My subject will be about my experiences as an engineer, business person and entrepreneur. The purpose of my talk will be to let the students see and hear an American speak American English, complete with non-British accent, idioms and slang. Many hope to,use their education as a ticket to the West and the USA in particular. It should be fun and we are both looking forward to it.
While we were there we saw Jeff meeting with software development teams, groups of eight to twelve developers, standing in a circle in the Deerwalk courtyard.
Our first stop on the tourist trail was at Durbar Square where we had an audience with a real live goddess, the Kumari, Kathmandu's city goddess to be exact. Many towns have one, a young girl who is selected for her beauty, intelligence and bravery. She serves as goddess until her first menstural cycle at which time she returns to "normal" life and a new girl is selected. While we were in her courtyard she appeared at a second story balcony, viewed the assembled crowd for a few moments and disappeared.
Next up: the palace complex at Durbar Square, a series of pagoda-shaped buildings connected to form inner courtyards. It served as the king's palace from the time of the first Shah king until the 1920s. Outside the compound is a large open square where in olden times they kept the royal elephants. Today it serves as a large open-air souvenir mall.
The Shah dynasty began in 1768 when a king from east of the Kathmandu valley finally conquered all three kingdoms in the valley, thereby creating for the first time a united Nepal. This king was of the Gurkha ethnic group, the famed soldiers who so impressed the British when they tried to add Nepal to the British Empire that they recruited them to be part of the British Army, a unit that remains active today. The line ended in 2008 when the last Shah king was driven from his throne by his displeased citizens.
Along the way King Tribhuvan took the courageous step of beginning democratic reforms in 1951. To do so he had to break the stranglehold achieved by a series of prime ministers who exercised dictatorial control over Nepal. King Tribuvan organized democratic forces and with the help of India was successful in ousting the prime minister and regaining control.
Two generations later, on June 1, 2001, King Birendraa and the rest of the royal family was gunned down, allegedly by King Birendra's own son, the crown prince. The son committed suicide, apparently, leaving the King's brother, Gyanendra, to assume the throne. Our guide, Paras, is skeptical since all of the evidence doesn't add up. Some speculate that the king's brother was behind the massacre. The new King Birendraa assumed total control, eliminating all vestiges of democracy that had painfully been established (including an insurgency launched by the Maoists in the 1990s). A popular 19-day uprising in 2006 drove the king from power, ending the Shah dynasty and creating a democratic state in 2008.
We toured the extensive museum in the old palace, which features exhibits about all of the Shah kings before having lunch at a rooftop restaurant overlooking Durbar Square (Judy had momos, a traditional Nepali dumpling; I had wild boar stew - delicious if a bit tough).
Next we visited the Swayambhunath temple, a Buddhist temple on a hill that overlooks central Kathmandu. Nepal is 90% Hindu, 11% Buddhist and 9% Christian, Muslim and other but the interesting thing is that the Hindus and Buddhists have lots of overlap, sharing deities and temples whenever it's convenient. Nepal has lots of conflicts that stand in the way of forming a united nation but religion isn't a big issue here. There are around 135 political parties in Nepal. Just think how hard it is to write a constitution that everyone can buy into.
Then back to the hotel for rest and relaxation and then off to dinner with Jeff. He took us to the Thamel district via the Deerwalk van. The restaurant, New Orleans, is an ex-pat hangout with Western and Nepali food. Good eats ($28 for three) and a really neat French brass band, including a Sousaphone, sax, trumpet, bass clarinet, drums and castanet. We walked home (20 minutes) and are settled in for the night.
Love to all,
Jon and Judy
Nepal Day 3 - Picture This
We both admire Mandela style art, which we found quite often in Bhutan. Today, on our visit to the city of Bhaktapur we purchased one. These works are incredibly detailed paintings that can serve one of two purposes: as a meditation device to focus the mind or to tell a story. Our guide Paras took us to a cooperative workshop where works such as this are created and where students can learn the art.
To become a Master, students traditionally must study under a Master for 12 years, 7 - 10 hours per day and 6 1/2 days a week. Today students work their way up in smaller chunks, learning each of seven required skills in sequence. Work is done in a yoga lotus style position. The work itself requires meditation so that the student can focus his or her mind on each detailed brush stroke.
The work we selected depicts the Buddhist Wheel of Life. It shows the states of human existence and that of the gods and demigods. It also shows the impediments humans must overcome to achieve the state of nirvana: complete enlightenment achieved through meditation and which ultimately breaks the continuing birth-death-reincarnation cycle.
The work was done by Indra Kumari Lama. It is his last work; he retired at age 51. Artists are forced to retire when their hands begin to tremble. Burn out from the intense long-term effort that is required is a frequent problem. The work we purchased took four months to complete.
Bhaktapur is the second of three medieval cities in the Kathmandu valley (Kathmandu and Patten are the other two). Bhaktapur was founded by King Ananda Malla in the 12th century (his brothers ran the other two towns as kings). The Malla clan built one temple after another - 170-odd at the peak - in three major squares. The good times came to and end when Prithvi Narayan Shah, the Ghorka guy, ran the Mallas out of all three towns in 1639, thereby establishing a new empire of Nepal.
We not only visited the temples and art studio but also visited Pottery Square where the make, you guessed it, pottery in the open air.
Then it was on to Nagarkot, a resort area on a hill ridge with what is said to have spectacular views of the Himalayas. Let's hope for good weather tomorrow. Otherwise this trip will be for naught since there is little else of interest here. It's only an hour out of town so it isn't that big of a deal but it would be nice to get a good view.
We had dinner this evening with our guide Paras. We learned that he's 27 years old, lives with his parents, as is the custom here, and is unmarried. He doesn't have a girlfriend. Instead he will enter into an arranged marriage. His parents have the heat on to get married and produce some grandkids. He and his bride will live with his parents, as is the custom.
Paras does documentary movie projects as a hobby, although I suspect it's a passion for him. He and a friend have also established an organization whose mission is to provide books for rural schools. The Nepali government perennially fails to get textbooks to rural schools. And did I mention he's completing his master's degree in linguistics? All in all, an interesting guy.
Love to all,
Jon and Judy
Day 4 - Changunarayan Temple, Boudhanath Stupa, Pashupatinath Temple
Changunarayan Temple, Boudhanath Stupa, Pashupatinath Temple. That's a mouthful and, as it turned out, a mindful. It was quite a day.
We woke up just before six waiting with baited breath for the Himalayans to show up with the sun's rise outside our balcony. The sun made it but the mountains were hidden in a thick haze, probably a mix of fog and smog. Later on we had a glimpse of the mountains through the haze, just enough to give us a feel for what the view must be like.
Instead we traveled by Deerwalk Van along with Jeff and 11 of his fellow Deerwalkers to Pokhara, a small resort town on the shores of a lake, Phewa Tal. Instead of a professional tour guide we traveled with folks making the trip for their own enjoyment, some of them returning to their home town. It's always fun to see a place through the eyes of someone who has lived the place for most of their lives.
Nepal Day 6 - Jeff Gets High with a Pretty Girl and Jon Goes Native
Ok, let's deal with Jeff first. Being a resort town, Pokhara offers several resorty activities including paragliding. Ever since zip lining in Mexico Jeff has had a need for thrills, especially thrills with altitude if not attitude. Lisa said "go for it" and, after the sunrise mountain viewing, off he went. Purely by chance, we are told, he drew a gal from Bulgaria who's been doing this for six years in Nepal. She reported having to pull with all her might to maneuver a big guy like Jeff. In fact, Jeff's legs are so long he had to be the one to run and jump off the cliff - her legs didn't touch the ground. If it makes you feel any better, Lisa, she had a pretty beefy looking boy friend looking after her.
But back to the beginning: up at 4:45, in the car at 5:15 and at the road construction site a little before six. That meant a 20 minute hike to the spot our driver said would produce good views without hiking to the tippy top of the hill. And right on schedule the sun, the Annapurna peaks and Fish Tail Mountain, among others. Breath taking, despite fairly strong haze. Well worth the early alarm clock call.
The hotel car got us back to the hotel in time for breakfast. Some of the Deerwalk guys showed up and took us for a walk to the lake. Jeff left for his date with Destiny (or whatever her name was). The remaining seven of us hired a boat - actually two canoes with a platform connecting them - to take us for a ride on the lake with a stop at the Hindu shrine located on a small island not too far off shore.
And that leads me to my cultural experience. Inside the temple, which is sunken below ground level, was a Hindu priest administering Tikas to all, including tourists, including Jon the Lutheran. Lonely Planet says that the Tika is a mixture of yoghurt, rice ands sindur (a red powder) applied to the forehead. It represents the all seeing, all knowing third eye and an important energy point. It is an acknowledgement of a devine presence at the occasion and a sign of protection for those receiving it. You see lots of folks with the Tiki sign on the streets of Kathmandu and elsewhere.
After the ride we walked the lakeshore for a ways and then called the van to take us to the landing site. Jeff alit about 15 minutes after we arrived.
Lunch was next, a "set" Nepali meal consisting of rice, a curry dish (mutton today, but chicken, goat, wild boar or veggie are possible), daal (lentil soup, sorta) and a veggie (cauliflower seems popular) plus pickle. You mix the daal into the rice with your fingers and dig in -utensils not required (Westerners can use forks and spoons if necessary). Good eats even if the service was a bit slow.
Then the ride home. Six hours is a long time to sit and watch the scenery pass us by. The road is in pretty descent shape but suffers, as do most summertime tourist roads in this area, from steep hills and lots of road construction. Nepal has an interesting driving culture. Horns are tooted slightly less frequently than the gas pedal is pressed; motorcycles, of which there a lot, apparently don't come with brakes. Riders speed up and shoot the gap rather than slowing down and waiting for oncoming cars to pass. But we made it back and can't wait to sleep late tomorrow (we're due on the van at nine).
Love to all,
Jon and Judy
Nepal Day 7 - Judy Gets Her Bell Rung
Today we completed the big three of the Kathmandu Valley - the city of Patan, the city of the arts, an area just across the sacred Bagmati River south of the city of Kathmandu.
First, however, a bit of business. I need to replace the battery charger for the Samsung phone I've been using on loan from Deerwalk. We finally found one at the Samsung customer service center just of the New Road - a street jam-packed with cell phone stores. Six dollars later I was back in business.
Patan, like Kathmandu and Bhaktapur, has a Durbar Square, an area around the formal imperial palace where the Malla kings ruled from 1597 until the Shah king took over in the eighteenth century. Patan has a strong Buddhist history, having been visited by the Buddhist emperor Ashoka around 250 BC. Ashoka erected Buddhist stupas at the four corners of the city.
Patan has more temples in its Durbar Square than I can begin to relate (don't worry, we made lots of pictures and videos). Each Malla king seemed to try and outdo his predecessor. While some date back to as early as the eleventh century much of the building occurred in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and most have been restored and modified over the years, especially after the conquest by Prithvi Narayan Shah in 1768 and the 1934 earthquake, both of which did considerable damage. Nonetheless, these temples and squares are said to be the best in Nepal and I'd agree.
The hightlight of Durbar Square is its Royal Palace, which today houses the Patan Museum. The museum has what is said to be the finest collection of religious (Buddhist and Hindu) art in Nepal. I was especially struck by the collection of metal sculptures of the myriad of deities in both faiths. Beautiful art and a primer on the culture; what could be better?
And that brings us to bell ringing or more accurately, bowl ringing.
You may think that we fall for every smooth talking salesman on the tourist trail, and you may be right, but the goods looked pretty nice, the sales pitch was indeed smooth and the price was within our souvenir budget. The item in this case was a "healing" bowl, something we'd seen and asked Paras about a few days ago. It's the same idea as running your finger around a crystal goblet to make it sing except in this case it is a metal bowl. The salesman said that there are two types: a singing bowl that makes a nice Om sound, suitable for meditation, and a healing bowl that is specially tuned to your astrological sign so as to make the 70% of your body that is water vibrate in a healing way. Cures every ache and pain the long suffering body is subject to.
We both tried it. Judy said, "I wish I had an ache or pain it could cure." For my part it tickled my knee and made me sneeze. I have my doubts about most curative things of this sort anyway so the purchase wasn't made for medicinal purposes. But it's a neat bowl with the insignia of the lake goddess (long story, having to do with thunderbolts that drained the valley to make room for Kathmandu and the rest). And think how much fun we'll have making it sing with the grand kids. It looks and sounds really cool when you wear it on your head.
We got the healing bowl, tuned to Judy and that doubles as a singing bowl. Maybe you're right, we are soft touches for smooth sales pitches.
Love to all,
Jon and Judy