Category Archives: Nepal

Shiva, sadhus and the cremation ghats

The most important Hindu pilgrimage site for followers of Shiva, Pashupatinath, lies on the eastern side of Kathmandu. With an amazig enclave of temples, cremation ghats, ritual bathers and half-naked sadhus, the Nepalese claim it as least as holy as India’s Varanasi. In Hinduism it is believed that those who die and are cremated here get an instant gateway to liberation from the cycle of births and re-births.

Before the 20th century, widows used to commit sati – to throw themselves in the husbands’ funeral pyres. Now, it is still widely believed that husbands and wives who bathe here together will be remarried in the next life. Despite its filth the Bagmati River is held by conservative Hindus to be the holiest one in the Kathmandu Valley.

The sight of bathers, worshippers, grieving families and one public cremation after another was something I’d never experienced before. Standing together with other pilgrims opposite the cremation platforms, I saw that the cremation rituals included the eldest son having his beard and head shaved, wearing white clothes of mourning. As you couldn’t actually see the body being burnt – covered with wood and straw – a local told me that the body is lit by the mouth. Finally, the ashes were swept into the river.

The sacred place also attracts sadhus – or holy men – who, although mostly an Indian phenomenon, are common at Pashupatinath, as many of them follow Shiva. They live solitary lives, have abandoned all possessions, subsist on alms, following the path to enlightenment. Some smear themselves with human ashes, symbolising Shiva’s role as the destroyer, who reduces all things to ash so that creation can begin anew.

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It’s raining again

It’s only when you leave the capital that you appreciate how extraordinary the small mountain-sheltered Kathmandu Valley really is. Green lush jungle-like hills and paddy fields surrounded us, as the bus wound its way down to Pokhara, a small town at the Phewa Lake embraced by the Annapurna mountain range.

Unfortunately, the breathtaking scenery of the nine icy peaks reaching 7,000-8,091m we did not see, as they were behind white cloudy curtains. July is the wettest month of the monsoon season and you always had to be prepared for the rain. We knew about the weather conditions coming to Nepal, but wanted to apply for a Chinese visa to continue our Asian trip and once nearby, were curious about how it was here and how the warm monsoon rain felt like.

However, with popularity has come commercialization and a loss of much of that made these treks special. The necessity of purchasing a single-entry (!) ticket to the conservation area and a trekking permit, both to the value of 30 overnight stays, made us angry. Trekking in India and China hardly ever costs anything and is nearly as scenic, if you’re satisfied with the 2,000-4,000m hikes. This made us think how our way to travel has changed compared to the one 5 months before.

My only attempt to make a satisfying short hike up the hill on the other side of the lake to a pagoda ended just before reaching the footbridge. Rain, mud, leeches, no real trails and a general lack of mountain view made quite clear, that going up there was not a good idea.

And then I met Jay, a neo-hippie from LA who got stuck there indefinitely, making his living by teaching reiki. During all his years spent in Nepal he has never been to the pagoda, but quite regularly accompanied tourists, who got robbed and beaten up in the forests, to the police. So I chose to go for a chai with him instead and learned that I have an aura of 20 cm around my body. Hell, that’s not much…

So this time, no snow leopard, no yak and no yeti, but hey, we’re just warming up…

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Kathmandu’s hustle and hassle

We reached Kathmandu three weeks ago and the first day seemed like heaven compared to crowded and noisy India: Nepal’s capital set among green hills appeared more relaxed, the people cool and friendly and the atmosphere tolerant and laid-back.

But soon we realized that we landed in a tourist trap with hundreds of trekking and travel agents next to each other, predatory touts selling anything from traditional handicrafts to fake tiger balm and hords of well-off Japanese, South Korean and English tourists. Walking the streets is a nightmare due to the absence of sidewalks and thousands of motorbikes driving through narrow roads, brainlessly honking their horns and competing for space with pedestrians. As in any over-touristy place, interactions with locals are a bit frustrating, as it’s hard to meet people who aren’t trying to do business with you. This is definitely no longer the backpackers’ destination it was twenty years ago.

However, we particularly liked two highlights of the valley that seem distinctly timeless, no matter how squeezed by traffic and commercial pressures they might be. The first one is the true historic centre of Nepal – Kathmandu’s bustling old city. Durbar Square and the old Royal Palace, also called Hanuman Dhoka, is packed with ageless temples, narrow alleys and vegetable sellers crowding the intersections.

The second one is the old city of Bhaktapur, the third major town of the valley and in many ways the most medieval. The “City of Devotees” once ruled Nepal, until the king divided its kingdom among his three sons. It appears something like Kathmandu must have been before the modern world arrived. We admired the impressive two main centres and three main squares, red-and-gold pagoda roofs and vibrant courtyards.

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