28 Apr Easy-riding Nepal
By Melanie Chambers |
The Himalayas are almost synonymous with Nepal, but the country is so much more than the world’s highest mountain range. Explore jungles, rice fields and rushing rivers.
North of Kathmandu: Namo Buddha
We’ve already stopped twice this morning: the first time, strangers dressed in bright red and yellow saris invited us to dance at a Hindu funeral. At the second stop, a farmer invited us to his house. Sipping warm milk straight from the cow, we silently gaze at the terraced rice fields spread out before us. “They don’t see many tourists here,” says my guide Bidot.
“Lunch?” yells the farmer across his cornfield. At this rate, we’ll never make it to Planchook Bhabati, the Hindu temple that was almost destroyed in the 2015 earthquake.
En route to Panauti, local Hindus celebrate a funeral anniversary called shraadh. Photo by Melanie Chambers.
Namo Buddha Resort
The Namo Buddha region is a quiet reprieve from the dust and chaotic traffic of the Nepalese capital. Only 60 kilometers southwest of Kathmandu, the Namo Buddha Resort is tucked into a forest of tall pines and cedars that overlook the southeastern Kathmandu Valley. With stone rock paths leading to individual tree cabins, the resort felt like the home of forest gnomes. From the property, there are a multitude of hikes—the most popular is a half-hour trek to the region’s namesake, the famous Tibetan monastery and school to over 250 monks.
Namo Buddha Monastery
Namo Buddha, meaning homage to Buddha, (Thrangu Tashu Yangtse in Tibetan), is one of the most sacred Buddhist monasteries; the site marks the place where a young prince, said to be a reincarnate of Buddha himself, gave his life to feed a dying tigress so she could feed her young. Buddhists believe the bones of the prince, perhaps Buddha, are buried under the nearby Stupa, a Buddhist shrine.
We decide to stay for the prayer ritual, called puja. Colourful red and yellow flags hang from the wooden beams. Instead of war flags, Buddhists hang these victory flags to celebrate harmony and goodness.
A young monk comes around with a basket of Nepalese bread (it tastes like a plain donut) and masala tea—black tea with milk and sugar. The smell of cardamom and cinnamon is divine.
Quietly seated on the crimson cushions in the back of the room, I feel the monks’ monotone chanting in my chest. I also feel witness to a secret society—one so focused and simple, completely unlike any world I’ve known.
Hiking to the Planchook Bhabati temple
The next day we decide on a more challenging day-long hike to the Hindu temple, Planchook Bhabati. Walking through villages, farmers’ fields and even waist-deep water through an overflowing river, it’s more of a backcountry trek than a well-marked hiking route. By late afternoon, we finally reach the last hour and a half—a steep ascent through jungle to the temple.
Created during the reign of King Mānadeva (505 A.D.), today the intricately carved flared roof and wooden beams are held up by giant bamboo sticks. The earthquake destroyed much of the Bhaktapur province—it’s a miracle this is even standing.
My guide brings me a plate of coconuts and a string of fragrant plumeria flowers (yellow centres with white petals) as offerings. We place them at the foot of the Kumari, a black stone goddess—Kumari is a young Hindu god representing divine female energy. With her sly, knowing smile, it seems like she is winking at me: good hike, she’d say!
South of Kathmandu: Chitwan National Park
“If you run in a zigzag line, back and forth, the rhinos won’t get you. Rhinos can’t make quick turns,” says our guide. If a rhino were running at me, I’d be an easy target because I’d be frozen with fear.
Under the canopy of leaves the size of a small car, it’s hard to believe this is the same country where I hiked last week in boots and a parka on a Himalayan mountaintop.
In the Madi Valley of Chitwan, a Tharu lady is walking her two water buffaloes to the grasslands for grazing. Photo by Mads Mathiasen, himalayan-trails.com
Located southwest of Kathmandu, Chitwan National Park, a UNESCO heritage park and Nepal’s first national park in 1973, is home to some of the world’s most exotic animals, located in the sweat-inducing jungle: rhinos, sloth bears, Bengal tigers, elephants and 500 species of birds.
But it wasn’t always so peaceful—pre-19th century, it was a hunting ground for royalty and aristocrats. In 1911, King George V and his son killed 39 tigers and 18 rhinos in one day.
On our day-long tour, walking quietly through the jungle, we’re fortunate to see the rhinos taking a bath in the river. “Wow, they are so much more wrinkly than I ever thought,” says one of the hikers.
Paddling back to the village in our tippy dugout canoe, we stop for a much-needed mango freezie, then head back to the giant, bathtub-sized concrete pool at our lodge. With its thatched roof cabins, hammocks and divine Indian food, it’s hard to only stay one night at the chilled out Evergreen Ecolodge.
Evergreen Ecolodge’s bohemian huts include a restaurant that serves organic produce. Photo by Melanie Chambers.
Early the next day, before it’s too hot, I cycle along the main road, then turn down a quiet side street, getting glimpses of the Rapti River, Nepal’s deepest, every so often. Waving to people on their front lawns and others cycling with baskets filled to the brim with vegetables, whole fish and pig’s feet, I feel like a local. The bike earned me some street cred—everyone has a bike here, where life is a bit slower, contemplative.
West of Kathmandu: Pokhara
After two hours of cycling (most tourists take a taxi), past the throng of incense and Buddha souvenir shops, the road turns to gravel, then it turns up.
Through a neverending series of switchbacks, we enter a gateway to cottages and a view that leaves me more breathless than the cycling: a jagged line of Himalayan mountain peaks; the rock stars of the mountain world are stretched out before me: Dhaulagiri (8,167 metres), Lamjung (6,983 metres) and Machhapuchhare (6,997 metres).
Cycling from Pokhara to Sarangkot takes a few hours, but the view of the Himalayas is worth it. Photo by Melanie Chambers.
We’re in Sarangkot, a small hillside town just outside Pokhara; many travellers use this place as a jumping off point for treks to the popular Annapurna circuit.
Nepalese cottage country
Located on Phewa Lake, Pokhara feels like Nepalese cottage country, with its lakeside shops and forested mountains encircling the lake. Unfortunately, it also feels like Niagara Falls on a long weekend, with its throng of tourists on the main street.
Cycling was one way to escape this. Another is paragliding.
“Run!” I do as I’m told, but stop abruptly. “Keep going!” my instructor yells. He’s directly behind me, but my feet stopped at the edge of the hill. Luckily, the momentum of my parasail pulls me into the sky.
My feet lifted off the ground and so did my spirit.
The ride only lasts for half an hour, but it’s enough to get a sense of the landscape below—the lake, the rice fields and animals grazing.
Water buffalo chilling out in Pokhara’s Lake Phewa. Photo by Melanie Chambers.
After the adrenalin high, I decide to soak in the view at ground level, from a lakeside bar. Renting a bike, I pedal outside of town, down the same gravel road where I climbed Sarangkot hill the day before. At a restaurant that consists of plastic chairs on a lawn, I eat my chicken watching the water buffalos bathing. It’s the ultimate way to end my month-long trip to a country full of surprising landscapes and generous people.