I had no idea what to expect from a visit to Nepal. It seemed so far away, so exotic; the place of mythical mountains, heroic sherpas and Buddhist temples with eyes. And Kathmandu – just the name seemed like something from a storybook explorer adventure, up there with places like Timbuktu and Mandalay – the sort of place you read about when you’re a kid but can’t imagine you’d actually get the chance to go. For goodness’ sake, I even had to check I was spelling it right.
Looking through the window we could see a piercing blue sky and miles of clouds that looked like a snowfield so dense you felt you could walk on it. Then, in the distance, rugged snow-capped mountains – the Himalayas! I was so excited I had to pinch myself. Everyone was snapping away like mad, but knowing my camera would never do this justice, I just stared and tried to imprint the image on my brain.
As the plane dipped though the clouds and the mountains disappeared, we all started scanning the ground below for signs of Kathmandu. Rolling hills covered with forest came into view, river beds winding through valleys like a network of veins, and as we descended, buildings and patches of cultivated land in steps. So green! Why was I surprised it was so green? Closer to Kathmandu, the land flattened out and the buildings got closer together; a jumble of colours and heights, and we could pick out temples and roads, people.
Kathmandu City is as much an assault on the senses as most Indian cities – traffic, people, bicycles, street sellers, shops with their goods spilling out on the pavement, the odd cow wandering down the road. Minibuses crammed with people, like there’s some kind of game show prize for the maximum number of passengers that can be squashed into a vehicle. Perhaps a little less frenetic than India, but just as in Jaipur or Varanasi, everyone and everything manages to wend its way round each other, ensuring that the flow of daily life carries on.
This was my first impression of Nepal when I was lucky enough to visit in 2011 after we had decided to start running a holiday there. It was an amazing trip that left me with wonderful memories of warm, welcoming people, stunning scenery and an insight into a fascinating way of life. What, then, was I to expect going back nearly two months after the devastating earthquake that destroyed buildings and tragically took so many lives?
My colleague and I did the same scanning and squinting out of the plane’s small windows, this time anxiously wondering if we would see flattened streets and endless fields of tents. Certainly our friends and families had questioned why we were going; surely it wasn’t safe? Was it right to go when people are trying to rebuild their lives? Having worked so closely with our agent in Nepal since the inception of the tour, we had absolute faith that they would not have let us come if there was a shred of doubt about our security or what we would see. However, everyone at Riviera Travel felt it was important for us to see it for ourselves so we could reassure our clients from the UK office point of view.
Dipping once again under the clouds, there were the familiar green hills, the river beds drier now as we were approaching the monsoon season. As the city came into view we saw houses, temples, office buildings, the roads came into view and that familiar ant-trail of traffic and people. The splash of bright orange or blue signified a tent here and there, but this was the city we remembered.
On the ground and now part of the throng in the streets, we saw the place was buzzing as usual; smartly-dressed children on their way to school, people on bicycles overladen with parcels, and of course the minibuses. Stopped in traffic, I took a quick photo of a mum trying to coax her shy child to wave at us.
After a typically warm Nepalese welcome at the Hyatt, where we were offered a cool drink and our foreheads were marked with red tikka, we were shown around the hotel. A relatively new structure, the Hyatt suffered only a couple of superficial cracks in the outside plasterwork, and the team there, led by the wonderful General Manager Sinead from Ireland (‘Would you be wanting a rest now?’) have continued to greet visitors since it happened.
As we explored the city, it was clear that not all the structures had been so sound, and we saw the rubble of some collapsed houses and commercial buildings. In one street we saw the unfinished shell of what would have been a three-storey block of flats that had been under construction, leaning sideways at a 30 degree angle. This was unusual, as the majority of buildings affected were old and had been flimsily constructed, usually between two solid ones. After the images shown on the TV in the days after the earthquake, one imagines that there would be whole streets flattened, a bit like Dresden after the bombings, but it isn’t like that at all. Of course there was damage, and in places there were small groups of tents, housing people who had been displaced, but overall, this was a city of people very much going about their lives. If you’ve ever been to India, you will know that there is always building work going on; often half-finished houses remain in that state for ages with the materials left stacked up in the street, and flimsy old houses are left to crumble. It’s the same in Nepal, so it can be hard to work out whether a building has been damaged by the earthquake, or was like that before, or even a bit of both.
When the earthquake hit Nepal, everyone at Riviera Travel wanted to do something to help, and we were soon receiving dozens of requests from office staff, clients and Tour Managers for guidance on where to send donations. We asked our agent in Kathmandu if there was a person, family or organisation we could help directly, and after some thought, they suggested a school in the city that relies on donations and provides education for underprivileged children. The Bamboo School is so called because it’s literally made of bamboo – a cheap and easily obtainable material that can be turned into a classroom in no time. Some of the classrooms at the school had been damaged, but just as importantly, many of the children come from outlying areas that have been heavily affected.
The school is in Bhaktapur, one of the old capitals of Nepal, about 8 miles from Kathmandu, and we were graciously welcomed by Shova, the tiny but no-nonsense Principal of the school. She kindly allowed us to step into some of the classrooms even though lessons were in full swing, and explained to us that many families are reluctant to send their children to school as they need them to work in the fields, and many children travel from remote farms. Each time we entered, everyone in the class stood up, putting their hands together as in prayer, and greeting us with the traditional ‘Namaste’. Despite the crammed classrooms, the basic conditions and the gaps in the top of the walls through which you could hear everyone next door, we were struck by how attentive they were, and how interested in the classes. One class was studying ‘moral sciences’ – how to be a good person – while a group of 7 and 8 year olds were learning English. We were amazed to see how beautiful their handwriting was, and that they were studying the difference between ‘a little’ and ‘a few’ (I like a little sugar in my tea/I have a few eggs) – impressive! In addition, maths, sciences and Nepali are taught there. The tiny tots in the kindergarten class were unsurprisingly not quite so disciplined; a couple were fast asleep, cheeks resting on their picture books, and others kept waving and then going shy, so we left them to it. The peal of laughter we heard just after we left made us realise we were clearly a huge source of amusement.
We asked Shova what she felt was the most urgent thing for the school if she was able to do anything, and apart from the repairs to the classrooms, she said they needed to build more of them. They need more space and there are more children than places at the school. This really made me think; she could have said computers, or better toilet facilities (there is a row of cubicles with tin doors that would remind many of the old outside ‘privvies’), or better desks or whatever, but the most important thing for her was to ensure that as many children as possible have the opportunity of an education.
On the journey back to Kathmandu we got talking to our agents about the natural sense of community the Nepalese have, something that existed before the earthquake. It’s normal for people to help each other and give their time, whether to neighbours or charities. They are aware though, that money from the international appeal will take time to filter through, but there are areas of the country that need it now.
Back in the main city, we passed through the colourful Tibetan market to reach the Boudhanath Stupa, close to the hotel and one of the largest in the world, where some of the many Buddhists in Nepal were walking around praying. Others were burning incense and making devotions, and we peeked in on the monks in the temple where we heard them chanting. We were amused to see one of the orange-robed monks sporting a funky pair of sunglasses!
Our next stop was Kathmandu Durbar Square. Famous for the Palace of the Living Goddess as well as many temples, this square has suffered a lot of damage from the earthquake. The palace is still up (and the Living Goddess still in residence – we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse. If you have never heard of her, our local guide will tell you the fascinating history and tradition behind this young lady), but heavily supported, as are many of the remaining temples. The area has been cleared so it is easy to walk around, and determined Nepalese are flying their flag, but to be honest it was heart-breaking to see the damage caused to this special place. All the positive vibes we were feeling up to now unfortunately took a bit of a bashing, but we could also understand why people have the impression that all of Kathmandu is like this, as the majority of the images we see on telly come from here. Sad though it is to see Kathmandu Durbar Square in this state, we know there are plans to repair and reconstruct the shrines, and it was the worst part of our visit to a city that still has so much more to offer. As we left the square we saw a notice attached to a wall saying ‘Welcome all foreign guests in Nepal’.
We made our way to the Patan Durbar Square, full of centuries-old temples and palaces. Out of the ten shrines in the square, two were sadly destroyed in the quake, but it is still very beautiful and a stunning example of the sixteenth and seventeenth century architecture Kathmandu is famous for. The square was full of locals who were visiting and make offerings, and the beautiful palace has exquisite carvings. Previously our tours didn’t include Patan Durbar Square, but after a lot of thought we have decided to include it instead of Kathmandu Durbar Square, and allow anyone who wants to, to visit the latter in their free time.
Our tour in Nepal is more than the capital so we pushed on to Chitwan and the tranquillity of the national park. The drive there was just as we had remembered from years before – windy mountain roads, steep hillsides with the river below and green hills above. Crazily-decorated lorries with ‘honk to pass’ and ‘sound horn’ painted on the back (and everyone does!); roadside huts all along the route selling sweets and drinks, or serving food. It’s a long drive but so fascinating, and later gives way to a much more rural landscape with farms and smallholdings.
At the Safari Narayani in Chitwan, we were welcomed by the quiet and courteous Rajeeb, who co-runs the lodge with his identical twin brother (apparently, although we never met his brother. Or did we?). The terrace at Safari Narayani looks straight across the river, and after the hustle and bustle of city life and the drive here, it was impossible not to hold our breath at the spectacular views of sparkling water and lush green jungle. As I watched a stork preening by the river, a bright blue bird flew across my sight line. Bliss.
As the sun went down we took an ox-cart ride to a nearby village to meet people of the Tharu tribe and learn about their lives with a local naturalist. With his help we asked some of them how they had managed in the earthquake. They were quite bemused by our question as it had barely been felt in Chitwan, and certainly hadn’t caused any damage. That evening as we watched the fireflies, the heat went up several notches so I was grateful for the air-con in the bedrooms – a recent addition. At three in the morning, it finally broke – thunder and lightning gave way to torrential rain and the monsoon had arrived.
We expected to spend the day getting soaked but by the time breakfast was over, the sun was coming out and an altogether cooler, fresher air accompanied our elephant ride through the jungle and along the river bank. Our elephant, Pawami Kali, ripped up long grass as she went along and we could hear her munching as we swayed through the forest. Kali means female, and our mahout explained that all the elephants they use are female as ‘they are easier to handle’. Hmm. We saw herds of spotted deer, a wild boar and plenty of rhino, and Nandu, our naturalist, pointed out all the birds – Jackhammers, Indian Cuckoos, something called a Lesser Coucal and many others.
We could have stayed here a week, but we still had another destination, so we reluctantly said goodbye to the lovely, endlessly smiling team at the lodge and drove to Pokhara. The scenery changed yet again as the less-steep hillsides became more cultivated with neat steps containing rice fields and maize. Pokhara is Nepal’s second biggest city and as we got closer, the view changed again, giving way to houses and businesses. The staff at the Hotel Pokhara Grande were so pleased we had come; this was low season for foreign visitors, but they are understandably concerned that in autumn, when they should be greeting visitors, people would be put off by news reports. Although the earthquake affected the outlying areas of Pokhara (the city is a popular base for walkers and trekkers), we saw no damage at all here.
Our local guide Dipak was passionate about his homeland and his enthusiasm was infectious. He told us how much he loves looking after our groups because they are always so interested and asked lots of questions. It was clear that Dipak’s gentle, well-mannered nature would go down as well as the wonderful ‘Englishisms’ he takes joy in including in his chat. Anyone who has had the pleasure of his company will no doubt have been asked if everything is ‘tickety boo’, or whether they are ready for a cup of ‘Rosie Lee’.
The tranquillity of this lakeside city makes it a wonderful place to relax, but its draw is also its proximity to the Annapurna range. We got up early the next day for the drive upwards to a viewpoint in the hope of seeing the sunrise. At this time of year there is usually a lot of cloud so our chances were small but Dipak was keen to show us the site. I remember standing here on my first visit and – not being a morning person – wondering why I was standing outside in the gloom instead of that comfy hotel bed, when slowly the light started moving across the horizon and picking out each mountain in turn. The snow-capped peaks were tinged blue at first, followed by blush pink as the sun rose, then yellow until finally turning white. Amazing!
This visit to Nepal made us realise that this was still the country we remembered and more. The earthquake has been devastating for the people in this wonderful place and has tragically cost so many lives, but the warm, modest Nepalese people are working hard to rebuild and restore, and it is more important than ever that people visit to help them achieve this. After seeing the images of the world’s media, we were pleasantly surprised that the damage cause by the earthquake was isolated and we have therefore made some minor adjustments to our tour. On our return, we were pleased to hear the FCO have changed its travel advice; having been there and seen it, we know this was the right thing to do. Nepal is beautiful and fascinating and welcoming in spades, and we will continue to visit and support the people there.
Our agent left a quote by Samuel Johnson on our itinerary which sums it up for me:
‘The use of travelling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.’
If this has inspired you to consider India or Nepal your next holiday destination, contact Riviera Travel to find out more about our tours on 01283 742 300 or book online.
Blog by Julie, part of our Operations team at Riviera Travel