Nepal always sounded exotic to me because my impressions about the country were shaped by the Bollywood classic Hare Rama Hare Krishna, textbook images of Mount Everest and the thrilling narratives of trekking enthusiasts. But I was in for a shock when I finally landed in Kathmandu. Despite the snow-laced mountains towering above the pandemonium of traffic, dust and chaos had driven me insane by the time I arrived at my hotel situated in the heart of Thamel, the immensely popular tourist market in Kathmandu valley. When I entered Thamel, there was a distinct change of scene from what looked like a tier-three Indian city to a hip and happy backpackers' quarter adorned with prayer flags and gleefully lost travelers. Packed with live music bars, watering holes and quaint cafes, Thamel personifies the hippie haven Nepal has always been. The walking streets defined by colorful stalls displaying Tibetan merchandise, Khukhuri knives, Yak wool shawls, thangka paintings, Buddha heads and singing bowls gave a euphoric lift from the starkly contrasting and awfully grubby lanes leading to it.
The three durbar squares situated a few miles apart from each other, are marked by riveting architectural masterpieces that transport unwary tourists like me to a time and place disconnected from all things familiar. Within minutes you start identifying with that world steeped in antiquity and royal hegemony, even as it seems paradoxical in this day and age. Pashupatinath, the widely revered Hindu temple and the seat of the national deity Shiva, sits quietly on the banks of the Bagmati river as fervent devotees go about performing rites of passage for the deceased. Once you get to Boudhanath Stupa and the guide delivers an enlightening speech on the philosophical premise of Buddhism, you remember that Hinduism and Buddhism have coexisted for centuries in the valley.
An excruciating bus drive away from Kathmandu lies Pokhara - the archetypal party place, the city of lakes and the tourist capital of the nation that serves as a base for trekkers taking the Annapurna circuit. Standing atop Sarangkot hill in Pokhara and watching the first rays of the sun cast a fiery glow to the rugged and snowy sierra, you realize what it is that draws many an adventurous soul to this mystic land. To appreciate the true essence of Nepal, one should set out on one of those grueling yet extremely rewarding treks people rave about - there's no other way to experience the stupefying terrain and the nuanced ethnic diversity. And of course, you have the whole gamut of adventure sports from bungee jumping to paragliding that can stir awake every sleeping cell in the body. The highlight of my trip has to be that moment when I was sinking into my high chair floating above Phewa Lake, teased by the wind about the frivolous lives we lead as humans, as the veteran hands of my trainer tugged at the strings of our glider.
I have often heard that westerners love India because of its ability to excite all bodily senses at the same time by its exuberant colors, energy and spontaneity. Even though I felt a lot of spillover effect in this neighbor country, especially in the cultural and culinary aspects, there was something about it that went beyond the sentient factor. The country is still recovering from the catastrophic earthquake of 2015 and its extended period of political instability. It was a mixed bag of surprises for me and I must admit that it evoked one of those inexplicable feels of travel.