It is less than an hour’s flight and a quirky 15 minute time difference from Paro to Kathmandu. In spite of being neighbors, sharing the Himalayan range and long borders with India and China, Nepal and Bhutan could not be more different. Nepal has a population of 28 million people, is predominantly Hindu versus Bhutan, which has just 750,000 residents and is predominantly Buddhist. The 2015 earthquake occurred just two weeks after my previous visit and knowing there was over eight billion in damages, I was anxious to get back and see how the country was recovering.
We were met inside the customs zone by our host company, Ventours, and expedited through the visa on arrival process ($25 per person) on a fast track basis. The airport is just 10 minutes from Kathmandu’s finest hotel, Dwarikas, which is a family owned heritage property that feels more like an open-air museum with many architectural pieces, antiques and objet d’art on display. We stayed in a “heritage” room, #308, which would be home for the next three nights, while our Chinese visas and the all-important Tibet permits were issued – this process apparently much easier in Nepal vs. the US.
Dwarika’s Japanese restaurant, Mako, was a hit for a sushi lunch and we set off to visit the cremation ghats of nearby Pashu Patinath. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, I have dubbed the “Varanasi of Nepal,” and it provides a unique glimpse into the Hindu belief of the circle of life. We saw several ceremonies in progress and it is also a place that attracts holy men, called sadhus, who allow you to photograph them for a small fee. Incongruously, there is an amusement park, complete with a ferris wheel, at the entrance to this spiritual place! We met up with the rest of our group and enjoyed a welcome dinner hosted by my friends, Tshering Sherpa, Managing Director of Yeti Airlines and Rebecca Slater from “Rebecca Recommends” at a smart new restaurant called Le Sherpa.
My plan was to fly up to Lukla and Namche Bazaar and spend the night in one of Tshering’s Yeti Mountain Homes. These two fabled villages are on the Nepalese trail to Everest and embody both the Sherpa culture and mountaineering ethos. An early start was suggested and we were ready for the pre-dawn wake up call; but sadly, heavy fog scuppered our plans and we set out for a day of sightseeing which included Bhaktapur, one of the three royal cities in the Kathmandu Valley that dates back to the 12th century.
Rebecca organized an “art day” including a visit to the Timro Concept Store which featured many “made in Nepal” handicrafts and to Image Ark, a creative design studio and gallery. There we met the owner, Angie, and one of Nepal’s leading contemporary artists, Ragini Upadhyay Grela, whose work was exhibited there. Also on display were some of Rebecca’s beautiful “Design for Life” pashminas and scarves, the proceeds of which go to local charities that are supporting the rebuilding of homes, villages, facilitating education and the promotion of tourism recovery. We strolled the Patan Durbar Square, much of which is under scaffolding from damages due to the earthquake. It was inspiring to see teams of foreign volunteers there helping with meticulous restoration and renovation. After a delicious lunch in the garden courtyard of “The Inn,” just off the square, we returned to Dwarikas for a BBQ dinner featuring Nepalese street food. My favorite was the “chatamari” which were rice flour crepes with minced chicken – a yummy Asian version of a quesadilla!