Thursday, July 12, 2012

Nepal: Top of the World

Welcome to Nepal, home of stupas and sherpas, yaks and yetis, trekkers and the tallest mountains in the world.  Click the link to read about our nine-day visit to Nepal.

Despite being the home to the Himalaya Mountain range, including the world's tallest mountain, Mount Everest, Nepal's capital city of Kathmandu is a crowded city with enough pollution to cause many people to wear masks to protect their lungs. 
Nepal's infrastructure clearly is strained by the many people crowded in its cities.  For instance, in Kathmandu, as well as the second biggest city, Pokhara, there are daily planned power outages designed to save the electrical system from overloading.  For 5-10 hours each day, the power throughout the city is shut off.  But you didn't need to be inside a darkened building to know that Nepal has some electricity issues--you only had to look up at the tangle of power cables above the streets.  I'm happy I'm not an electrician in Nepal.
We noticed a few public water fountains in Kathmandu, where people could fill up water jugs for daily use.

The crowding in Nepal was evident on the roads.  City buses were regularly seen with passengers crowded onto the top of buses, as seen in the second photo above.  And during one seven-hour bus ride between Kathmandu and Pokhara, we saw five serious road accidents, including the above-pictured accident which closed the road for quite some time.

A major reason why the infrastructure is so strained in Nepal is the large influx of tourists and trekkers who descend upon the country, hoping to hike among the mountains.  This has led to backpacker ghettos in Kathmandu and Pokhara.  For tourists such as ourselves, this means we can find all sorts of foods that remind us of home, including meat & potatoes and apple pie. 
Although we ate plenty of western-style food, we also sampled a range of delicious Nepalese and Tibetan dishes, such as the above-pictured dumplings (called Momos) and soup (called Thugpa).

Despite the crowds, the people we met in the cities were invariably friendly, even if they were wearing "Angry Birds" shirts.

Above are photos of some schoolkids entering a main square (called Durbar Square) in Kathmandu.  The above video shows Nick shooting the photo that is just above the video.  This kind of scene of kids mugging for the camera has been repeated many times throughout our trip.

While Nick was reviewing his photos from Durbar Square, Nick confessed that he didn't realize Beth, Shane and I were in the above photo; on the other hand, we were posing, thinking Nick was intending to take a photo of us.  Sometimes Nick is so busy taking great photos of the locals that he accidentally takes one of his fellow travellers!

Nepal is a predominantly Buddhist country, and it features numerous sacred Buddhist stupas, including the above-pictured Swayambhu Stupa, which overlooks the city of Kathmandu. 

While the people at Swayambhu were very peaceful, the monkeys who live around the temple were more agitated.  Perhaps the monkeys knew that the four of us were visiting, and we had seen a lot of other monkeys in temples around Asia, so these monkeys would have to do something noteworthy to be included in this blog!

We visited many other Buddhist temples in Nepal, including the above-pictured temples. 

Most of the stupas and temples we visited, as well as many other buildings and mountain ridges throughout Nepal, are adorned with prayer flags.  A prayer flag is a colorful panel of rectangular cloth, which is used to bless the surrounding area.  Prayer flags are used to promote peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom.  The flags do not carry prayers to gods, a common misconception; rather, the Nepalese and Tibetans believe the prayers and mantras written on the flags will be blown by the wind to spread the good will and compassion into all pervading space.  Therefore, prayer flags are thought to bring benefit to all.

Another common sight at stupas in Nepal are prayer wheels, which are inscribed with Buddhist texts and are set in motion by pilgrims as shown in the above video.

Beth and I set off on an all-day hike to a Buddhist monastery atop a mountain ridge.  Unfortunately, the visibility was poor on the day of our hike, and the Himalayas--which normally would be visible in the above photo of us--were shrouded in clouds.  However, the lack of long-range visibility encouraged us to focus on the peaceful short-range surroundings, as shown in the above videos.

During the time of our visit, the long-range visibility was poor throughout the region.  For instance, snow-capped mountains would normally be visible in the distance from where the above photo was taken.  During our visit, sight-seeing flights around Mount Everest were either cancelled due to bad weather, or resulted in disappointing cloud-covered glimpses of the mountain.  Tragically, on the one day when there appeared to be a window of good weather for climbing to the summit of Mount Everest, six climbers died because of delays caused by the large number of climbers who attempted to summit during that short window of good weather.

The poor long-range visibility encouraged us to venture into the Nepalese countryside to experience the beauty that lay closer to the ground, as pictured above.

As if to reward us for our patience, when we awoke on the final day of our visit, we were greeted with parted clouds that revealed beautiful mountain vistas.

When we checked out of our Kathmandu hotel to catch our 11:00 p.m. flight to South Africa, we were surprised by the hotel staff, who performed a departure ceremony for us.  They gave us each gifts and then tied scarves around our necks.  Even more than the beautiful scenery, it is the kindness of the Nepalese people that we will remember most about our visit to this country which sits on top of the world.

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