Sunday, December 09, 2007

Nepal, January 1991

I had a short stay in Nepal in 1991 during my first trip to the Indian subcontinent. I had just spent a little over a week in North India, which was fascinating but also difficult for a first-time western visitor. Nepal turned out to be a vacation from my vacation. After I left Nepal I flew to South India, which I fell madly in love with. I wrote this in Nepal, as part of a letter to friends, not intending it for publication. I've made a few changes here and there.

The Hindu kingdom of Nepal* borders India, but it's a very different place. The cities are much smaller, for one thing, and there's a much more laid back atmosphere in general. Nepali architecture is quite exotic, Kathmandu itself being a happy enough blend of old and new.

In addition to Kathmandu I visited the neighboring historic cities of Patan and Bhaktapur, the enormous Buddhist stupa at Bodnath, and the vast Hindu temple complex at Pashupatinath (where several cremations were going on). The architectural style of the Kathmandu valley, a blend of Hindu and Buddhist elements, is wonderful and magical, real storybook stuff.

In Kathmandu people are always trying to sell you something, but with less subterfuge than in North India. And if there is occasionally a similar tenacity, they do eventually take no for an answer. The people's faces, Newari, Sherpa and Tibetan, are themselves a feast for the eyes. I found people to be generally friendly and loquacious, often wanting to talk about their country's political past, present and future.

In Kathmandu I discovered a marvelous restaurant, Sunkosi, which features Nepali and Tibetan food--and they have separate chefs for each cuisine. One of their desserts, a sweet yogurt concoction with nuts and fruit called sikarni, was featured in Gourmet magazine. The name sounds like it might be a variant on the Indian shrikhand, sometimes appearing on menus as shrikhund, which always conjures up an image of a mad German dog.

Perhaps because of Nepal's popularity with European tourists the Nepalese even manage to do reasonable western food, including croissants (the Indian ones are crescent-shaped bricks).

Kathmandu is a shopper's paradise, especially if you're looking for sweaters. Heavy, colorful yak's wool sweaters go for about $11-13. I spent one day walking around Kathmandu, looking, shopping and relaxing. The relaxing part is impossible in North India. At one point a guy roped me into his shop. I bought a sweater, a wool cap and a scarf. He also had a jacket I was interested in, but he didn't have a combination of size and color I liked. "We'll go to other shop, very close," he said, and he guided me through the narrow streets to the other place. There, a young woman helped me find what I was looking for. When she left the room the guy said to me, "You like this girl? I can arrange for you," and then added, "Typical Nepali girl," in much the same way he had described a sweater: "Typical Nepali design." I decided to stick with clothes.

The following day I went to Dhulikhel, a village in the hills, where I spent two peaceful days. From Dhulikhel you get a good view of a stretch of the Himalayas, and the peaks have an odd effect like a white projection onto the sky. The air was crisp and clean, the landscape beautiful, and the hotel served very good food.

My second morning at Dhulikhel I woke up at 6 A.M. so I could see sunrise over the Himalayas. Kumar, a teenager who works at the hotel, escorted the guests up to the top of a hill, where you get the best views (the hill is also used by the villagers for animal sacrifices). Later I went for a walk around the mountain villages with Kumar as my guide. Along the way we met a bright little kid who asked where I was from. When I told him New York he replied, "Oh yes, we learned in my school about New York, and also Washington, which I believe is the seat of your kingdom."

* In 2006 Nepal was declared a secular state.


Anonymous Al (yes, that Al) said...

Interesting, although not surprising, that your experience of Nepal and mine should be much the same. And for much the same reason, since I came in overland from the strangely compelling trauma of India. I wonder how it would be now, after all the upheavals of the intervening years.

3:52 PM  

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