Nepal (Part 1): Om Mani Padme Hum
As I'm driving on a busy freeway in Phoenix, Arizona a song plays hypnotically on my car stereo, a single verse, repeated over and over. It's a very popular mantra song I discovered while touring Nepal and stuck with me to this day.
It all started in the spring of 2017 when I decided to join a group of enthusiasts on a photography tour of Nepal scheduled for the fall. The trip itinerary promised to take us from the busy streets of Kathmandu to the mountains of Nepal and the wild life of Chitwan National Park. A great opportunity to take my first trip to Asia, while outsourcing all the logistics to someone else. It was one of the greatest trips I ever made.
I landed at Tribhuvan International Airport in Nepal's capital, Kathmandu. The airport itself doesn't look much on the outside, while the inside reminds me of an animated train station in a provincial town. But this is Nepal's foremost gateway to the world and a good indication of what's to come. Basu, our local fixer and all-things-travel guru, picks us up in the van which will take us to many of our trip's destinations.
Our hotel was a relatively quiet building in the bustling Thamel, a touristy and commercial neighborhood of Kathmandu. The merchants, the tourists and rickshaws are swimming together in a mass of people that fills the streets from dusk and well after dawn.
We spent a couple of days in Kathmandu, exploring the daily life, the temples and old neighborhoods, almost always surrounded by people in motion. It seemed like the race was on 24/7!
The myriad street vendors are everywhere; virtually every little dwelling facing the street is converted to a shopping outlet, not to mention the mobile vendors that pop up at every corner.
Did I say street vendors at every corner? Then wait until you start noticing that temples are also ubiquitous elements of the city's structure and life -- you'd be hard pressed to find a street without a temple or a shrine.
There are even tiny spots in the streets where people make offerings -- conveniently located, aren't they? This one, a "lingam", is a representation of god Shiva, one of the main gods of Hinduism.
Stupas are another feature you can find everywhere, too -- hemispherical structures of various sizes used as a place of meditation and prayer. We couldn't miss Boudhanath Stupa, the largest stupa in Nepal and the holiest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside Tibet. This stupa is surrounded by houses and restaurants that offer great views, but I chose a more down-to-earth view so I shot the photo below from a merchant's shop.
Basu, our guide, explained that Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan are the three neighboring city-kingdoms located in the Kathmandu Valley. History is everywhere you look in all those cities, but especially in Bhaktapur, which is a designated World Heritage Site by UNESCO for its rich culture, historical buildings, wood, metal and stone artworks.
A fascinating city, a living-history museum, Bhakptapur delights with its old dwellings, ancient customs and overall character. The city comes alive well before sunrise, with many of its citizens surrounding the temples and making offerings.
The customs dictate that one must go around the temple, always using a clockwise direction.
A fascinating custom in Nepal and some neighboring countries is spinning the so-called "prayer wheels", present at most temples. The "wheels" are made of metal, wood or stone and have a mantra written in Sanskrit on their outside. Remember the song playing in my car? That is "Om Mani Padme Hum" one of the most powerful mantras in existence and commonly written on prayer wheels. Spinning the wheels is said to have the same effect as reciting the mantra, so a vigorous spin will have a powerful effect.
Those willing to leave their comfortable beds before sunrise are rewarded with great views of the city and mountains. The photo below was taken from a restaurant's rooftop in the city center.
This time of year many people were busy cleaning up rice.
Finally, a word about the Nepali architecture: the old buildings are simply outstanding when you consider their age and the continued attack of time, climate and pollution. The earthquake of 2015 had devastated not only the people, but historical monuments as well. However, many buildings survived more or less unscathed and represent a heritage to be treasured.
A common trait of old buildings is the delicate woodwork that still stands in good shape despite their age. This can be seen best in temples, such as the Nyatapola Temple, a five-roof temple built over 300 years ago and one of the tallest buildings in Bhaktapur.
As much as I enjoyed the history, culture and people, it was now time to leave the cities behind and head to the mountains... We'll meet again in my upcoming blog post on the pros and cons of trekking in Nepal.