Sticking proudly out of the cloud cover, the mighty Himalayas came into view. Everyone on the plane gasped, pulled out cameras and shutters were flying. After five or six loops around this same range of peaks, and clearly in some kind of holding pattern, I pondered whether Kathmandu was a busier airport than I realized. Finally the pilot announced that he was “going to fly around for a little longer and TRY to get into Kathmandu,” otherwise he would abort the flight to Delhi. Never mind that it was 7:00 in the morning, I called for a glass of wine to calm my “aviation nerves” which were now on full alert. So it wasn’t air traffic but poor visibility and recalling that a Turkish Airlines plane has slid off the runway in Kathmandu a few short weeks ago, it’s no wonder they were being cautious…and yes, I was flying Turkish! We gave up after nine tries and headed for the capital of India. The plan was to refuel, wait awhile and hope that the crew did not time out.
Meanwhile my jet-lagged mind was racing ahead to all of the “what-ifs” and I was pleased at least that I had a multi-entry Indian visa in case we got stuck. Giving a silent word of thanks to my IT team back in the office, I was able to get online and check what options Air India offered for the afternoon and also managed to check the NCAA basketball brackets and delighted to see that my beloved Blue Devils had progressed to the next round. But Mother Nature cooperated and lifted the fog…we flew back to Kathmandu and landed on the first try. So our supposed 6-1/2 hour flight from Istanbul turned into 12 hours on the plane but we arrived in one piece. I knew that Paro in neighboring Bhutan is one of the most challenging airports in which to land, but apparently Kathmandu has similar status and is duly added to that list!
I stepped into 78 degree sunshine, pinching myself the whole time that I was actually in Kathmandu, a city whose name, the way it rolls of your tongue, has as much romanticism and exoticism attached to it as Timbuktu. Neeraj, one of the team members of Ventours, my host for this trip, was inside the customs area to meet me; he’d been at the airport all morning and had watched each of our nine attempts to land! He had prepaid my “visa on arrival” fee so no standing in line and I was visibly relieved to see my two bags arrive. I was garlanded with marigolds and we set off for the short distance to Dwarika’s Hotel, the city’s top property which is a little oasis in an otherwise chaotic urban frenzy. I was shown to room #56, a spacious junior suite with both a king size bed and a king size day bed and broke the golden rule of “keep going” on the arrival day and succumbed to a few hours of much needed sleep.
Dwarika’s is privately owned and the second generation of the founder’s family is firmly in place in the capable hands of Sangita Einhaus, who is as elegant and chic as she is hospitable. It is built around a central courtyard with copious pots brimming with flowers. Sangita’s father was interested in preserving Nepalese culture, handicrafts and architecture traditions which date back to the 13th century and so he scoured the countryside for decades collecting intricately carved window frames, doors and antique furnishings. Thunderheads gathered as we met (dodging raindrops) for drinks in the “Fusion Bar” and a light dinner of “finger food” which included chicken momos (lovely steamed dumplings which I’d learned to make last summer in Ladakh), spicy Mustang potatoes and believe it or not, fried chicken wings!
A few hearty souls joined me for a yoga practice at 7 AM, offered daily by the hotel on a complimentary basis. How good it felt to stretch after a 36 hour travel day. We breakfasted in the courtyard garden—a light fleece felt good – and tried the three types of local honey on offer: apple blossom honey, herbal honey and a dark molasses-like variety which they called “Jungle Honey.”
We met our guide, Sanjee, and he gave us many interesting insights into both the country of Nepal, a country of 27.1 millions residents and about the size of Wisconsin and to Kathmandu, its capital city with a population of 4 million. Despite the fact that Nepal has some of the highest mountains in the world including the Himalayas (which literally means “House of Snow”), it never snows in Kathmandu! The city has the same latitude as Cairo and Jacksonville, FL, and thus enjoys a sub-tropical climate – but slightly cooler due to the elevation at 4297 ft. I had no idea that Nepal was 81% Hindu and just 9% Buddhist and would have predicted it the other way around, but it is interesting how the two faiths have blended into the everyday spiritual fabric of the people. Though rich in natural beauty, it is a poor country with average per capital income just $1200/year. Its recent past has been tumultuous with the country’s transition from a monarchy to a democratic republic only in 2008 and the constitution yet to be written!
We headed to the Kathmandu Valley, an area of 220 square miles and often called a “living museum.” The entire valley has been deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site with seven separate locations identified under the designation. It is home to three royal cities and today we visited Patan, built by Ashoka and dates back to the 3rd century and is known as “the city of Fine Arts.” Something unique to Nepal is the worship of pre-pubescent girls as living goddesses, believed to be manifestations of the divine female energy or devi in the Hindu faith. This practice is known as “kumari” which comes from the Sanskrit word for virgin. Our first stop was to visit the Kumari in Patan and to receive her blessing. The selection process is very rigorous – supposedly a kumari must possess 32 unique perfections which include “eyes like a doe,” and a “body like a banyan tree.” She is sequestered in a temple and only comes out of the temple 14 days per year to attend festivals and her feet never touch the ground – she must be carried. We found an 8-year old girl in an ornate red gown, with exaggerated Cleopatra-like eye make up, perched on a miniature throne with butter oil lamps burning and other ceremonial items at her feet. As she applied the vermillion to each of our foreheads you could not help but notice she had the hiccups which was somehow reassuring that she was, in fact, just a child!
Bolstered by our blessing, we visited the Patan Museum, attractively situated in a historic palace and arguably the best museum in the country. It artfully displays a collection of both Hindu and Buddhist artifacts. We had an alfresco lunch in the restaurant of a boutique hotel called “Traditional Inn,” and saw a few rooms which were small but tidy and I’m told this is a very trendy area at night with many cafes and bars so would be perfect for a younger client who wanted to be in the thick of things. We strolled the Durbar Square with several temples and flanked by the ubiquitous and endless array of souvenir shops. The day’s exploration concluded with a visit to the Bodhnath Stupa, the largest in the world and kind of disarming in that it has four pairs of eyes in each of the cardinal directions keeping watch for “righteous behavior!” Prayer flags fluttered and the skies darkened for another afternoon shower. But we took refuge in the monastery and had a fascinating Q&A session with one of the monks who gave us frank answers to all of our questions about being a monk and Buddhism.
Retreating to the sanctuary of Dwarika’s, we tucked into a 9-course tasting menu at their Nepalese specialty restaurant. Seated at low tables (the legs of the chairs only about 4” off the ground which made getting up interesting!) we embarked on a culinary journey through Nepal which included fried quail, buckwheat pancakes, steamed dumplings, sweet gourd and soybeans, hug-plum pickle and more! The jet lag kicked in and I heaved myself up from the table and fell into a deep sleep knowing we had a big day planned for tomorrow.
The day began early with a visit to Pashupatinath, a temple dedicated to the Hindu god, Lord Shiva who is both the Destroyer and Creator. Many devout Hindus from across Asia make a pilgrimage here. As non-Hindus we were not able to enter the temple but could observe from across the Bagmati River that was lined with cremation ghats, which like Varanasi, operate 24/7. Two “services” were underway during our visit. Ashes are scattered in the river which is believed to be holy as it is a tributary of the Ganges River. The temple attracts many holy men, called sadhus who are colorful in their orange robes, dreadlocks, and grey skin (the color comes from rubbing crematory ashes onto their arms, legs and faces) and we stopped to photograph them – their expressions as stoic as a Buckingham Palace guard!
It was off to the airport for our short flight to Pokhara. The domestic terminal is very much under construction and as we dodged welders and electricians, I wondered if we shouldn’t be wearing hard hats!