Vignettes from a maiden visit to the Himalayan country by Deepu Philip.

It was Nepal’s turn for several reasons. As Indians, we could get visas fairly easily, the Indian rupee was a little ahead, and then there’s Nepal’s magnetic culture. The trip commenced in Sonauli and through Chitwan, Hatuada and Phaloon, we finally got to Kathmandu. All the way through, we could feel the infusion of a strange, vibrant culture that reached a peak in Kathmandu. Abrupt and curved roads, landscapes designed by planters and aggressive rivers.

The first day in Kathmandu, I realised that I had been humbugged about Nepal by travel texts and the Internet. I am from Kerala, where the Left parties are prominent; I was inquisitive about the present government of Nepal. Expecting scenes of ‘revolution’, I even had a question prepared for the mighty Prachanda. On my second day, the Kathmandu Post gives me this headline — “Prachanda slapped by a former supporter of his party”. I moved on.

My meeting with a kumari, a young girl venerated as a goddess, was a bewildering experience. I had long wanted to meet one. I did, finally, though she was a ‘former’ Kumari. She was seated on a raised platform, beside a hut. She was familiar with interviews, and rattled off the 32 characteristics that define a Kumari. An old woman interrupted, offered her a sweet, paid obeisance and left. The girl was indifferent, cold even, and ended the meeting.

It was a blessing to be in Kathmandu during the Tihar, a festival of light. Decorated shops and houses, small, cheerful groups of the young and old, roaming the streets, instant colours from bursting crackers, busy markets with a large variety of indigenous sweets. I stayed at Chetrapati, a street in old Kathmandu. I was familiar with the more famous temples of Nepal through some magazines, but I was amazed by the numerous others I witnessed. Another festival was the Nepali New Year, which I thought was marked by a procession of vehicles, with a blast of recorded and live music. Then there was the Bala Chathurvedi festival. Kathmandu surely is a “city of festivals.”

Pokhara is a prominent tourist spot, but seemed designed for well-to-do tourists. I enjoyed the visit to Phedikhola, which houses the Gurkha monument. Nineteen Gurkha castes prayed for predecessors who died in wars. The panoramic background of the Annapurna range was stunning. I then moved to Lakenath, a place surrounded by five lakes. With a warm up walk, you can be atop one of the many hills. A fine place for a secluded life. Tatopani, just five hours journey from Kathmandu. The Tatopani garden and an elementary school were right behind my room. There were two girls out on the veranda, likely sent out for incomplete compositions or some such. A little later, their teacher dragged them back in by their ears. Too bad, they seemed happy outside.

The Friendship Bridge is barely one or two kilometres from Tatopani. A Nepali soldier let me on to the bridge with a short question. At the Kosi river bank, I pointed my camera at something that looked like a hut on the side of the mountain. A villager admonished me, saying that ‘hut’ might shoot back. I retreated. China was proving to be worrisome. I decided to go to Bhutan instead, through Sikkim.