On the route of the Himalayas
They say that in the high mountains the cosmic energy becomes much more present. Nepal, with eight of the highest peaks on the planet, is a place of a unique landscape. We visit this crossroads of roads for Asian cultures of antiquity. Hinduism, Buddhism, gods, peasants, children ... color this country where time stands still, now a paradise for lovers of great walks.
We fly over the Kathmandu valley and just before landing I can see it from a bird's eye view, with its oval bowl shape surrounded by mountains. It is easy to imagine that formerly it was flooded under the waters of a huge lake until, according to legend, Manjushri - a disciple of Buddha - raised his sword of wisdom to create a passage between the mountains, thus draining all the water and leaving A fertile valley. This is just one of the many stories that I will hear during my trip. Ancestral traditions, religious rites and beliefs of all kinds favor the magical and spiritual environment that you breathe in Nepal and that attracts thousands of travelers.
But my first contact with the country is much more mundane. Upon leaving the airport I receive a breath of warm air and a horde of Nepalese disputes my attention - and my luggage - to take me to the hotel. My guide for the next ten days, Suresh, is waiting for me. While we travel the eight kilometers that separate the airport from the capital, he tells me in perfect Spanish that he when he was young was sherpa, until he decided to set up his own company. The Sherpas, an original ethnic group from the mountains in Nepal, played such an important role in the expeditions to the Himalayas that the word sherpa remained to refer to any guide and / or helper even if not of that ethnicity. This same valley has been a crossroads of the oldest civilizations in Asia since time immemorial. Tomorrow we will visit some of their more than 130 monuments declared World Heritage by Unesco, among them, several pilgrimage sites for Hindus and Buddhists.
But today I dedicate myself to walk through the most cosmopolitan part of the capital, Thamel neighborhood. In the 60s its streets were filled with hippies that were looking for the origins of Buddha and spiritual enlightenment. From that time there are only a couple of stores left in the Freak street (the 'street of the rare', as they called the hippies) and a decrepit poster announcing the name. To acquire a souvenir is the perfect place. At present, those who come are curious travelers, and especially mountaineers who come to equip themselves - at laughing prices - before starting one of their spectacular walks. The trekking in Nepal It has become one of the great claims, and people coming from all over the world can enjoy the great landscape through picturesque villages at the foot of the Himalayas, with expeditions ranging from high-risk adventures to simple walks (for all tastes).
Adventure in Nepal
Thamel neighborhood in Nepal © Corbis
On this occasion, I have not come to trek. But I am struck by the large number of foreign women traveling alone, which suggests that Nepal is quite safe. Having strolled through the bustling Thamel, Suresh takes me to the terrace of the Helena's restaurant, in which in addition to a great meal, we enjoy an excellent panoramic view of the neighborhood. Although night has already fallen, Thamel does not sleep. Today I will retire early, but tomorrow I will have dinner at one of the typical restaurants with live music that is so successful among travelers.
Since the reign of the Malla dynasty, which ruled between the twelfth and eighteenth centuries (golden age of Nepal), Durbar Square It has been the religious, political and social center of the city. And also where the newari art (which in Sanskrit means 'citizen of Nepal') has left its mark in a more remarkable way, with the delicate sculptures of the Hindu gods Krishna, Shiva, etc., as an emblem, earning the declaration, in 1979, of Heritage of the Humanity along with its 60 historic buildings, including the Kasthamandap giant pagoda, from which the city takes its name. Its structure was built with the wood of a single tree and without using nails. I tell Suresh that I feel like I'm in the set of the movie Little buddha, and tells me that I have a good eye, since it was here where some scenes were shot.
Trailokya Mohan Narayan temple in Durbar Square © Félix Lorenzo
Among the many temples of the square, the one of Kumari Chowk, the monastery where he lives the girl-goddess Kumari (in Sanskrit ku mari it means 'easy die', which was the name babies received in India). It is believed that a Kumari is the reincarnation of the Hindu goddess Parvati Kumari (wife of the god Shiva) until the girl begins to menstruate. The little girl is chosen at an early age after undergoing hard tests and is worshiped by both Hinduists and Buddhists. It only leaves its seclusion to be seen during the great festivals, although, several times a day, it is shown through a small window. In one of those moments, I was lucky to see her dressed in red, but what I was able to see, rather, were little eyes torn and painted profusely with khol. I guess Kumari would be imagining what life would be like out there, in the world of mortals, which will soon discover.
Kumari Chowk, the monastery of the girl-goddess © Corbis
In the afternoon we visit Boudanath, the neighborhood in which the Tibetans who fled the Chinese invasion in the 50s settled and where the largest Buddhist stupa outside Tibet is located. The temple was born at a crossroads in the middle of one of the trade routes between India and Tibet. The merchants stopped here to pray. Those who headed north requested Buddha's help to cross the high steps of the Himalayas, and those who traveled south thanked him after the hard journey through the mountains. Today it is still a meeting point for hundreds of pilgrims and monks that surround the stupa clockwise while spinning the prayer rollers. I find it reassuring to see them so focused singing the Om Mani Padme Hum, the best known mantra of Buddhism. His syllables refer to the importance of practice and method in the path of Buddha, whose eyes are drawn on the four sides of the stupa.
It's getting dark, but the flow of devotees does not stop. Today there is a full moon and on nights like this, yak fat candles are lit around the temple. The show is touching. I watch it from a distance and still, the peace it radiates reaches me. The next morning we visited until the swuayambhunath stupa, better known as the Temple of the Monkeys. It is a Buddhist temple located on top of a hill with stunning views over the valley. It is accessed by a steep path of 365 steps designed for pilgrims and for the most daring travelers. Buddhist monks live here, sadhus -santons- and, of course, naughty monkeys who steal the food offered to the gods.
Buddhist monk children in the stupa of Boudanath © Félix Lorenzo
Before returning to Kathmandu we stop at Pashupatinath, a huge complex dedicated to Shiva where the largest and also the most important Hindu temple in the valley is located, located on both banks of the sacred river Bagmati. Hinduists come here to purify themselves and to incinerate their dead. Those of us who do not profess this religion are prohibited from entering the main temple, but the most interesting thing happens outside its walls. Here a good number of sadhus.
Apparently they have stripped off their material goods to devote themselves to meditation, but they don't hesitate to ask me for money when I try to photograph them. Pashupatinath he gives me overwhelming images, as the cremation ritual. And other surprising ones: a woman with her little daughter who is wetting her feet in the river is indifferent to the fact that, just a couple of meters away, they are immersing the body of a deceased in the water. Life and death coexist in this river, mixing naturally. A very different perspective than what we Christians have.
Bungamati is a small town just nine kilometers from Kathmandu. It does not have many infrastructures - there are neither restaurants nor hotels - but Suresh convinces me to visit it for its authenticity and its rural atmosphere. Once you enter the village, the ganesh temple It is on one side and you reach Durbar Square, surrounded by rustic houses next to which there are mounds of grain that women rake and distribute on the ground to dry in the sun.
Bungamati, without hotels or restaurants © Félix Lorenzo
We arrive at what is for me the most beautiful city we will visit, Patan or Lalitpur, the city of artisans, the home of Nepal's most famous wood carvers. The technique they use is exactly the same as before. The absence of traffic allows me, apart from walking quietly, to hear the thud of the chisels of the artisans working in the street. The city has also maintained its original essence with its narrow streets, red brick houses and well-preserved Hindu temples, Buddhist monasteries and other monuments. Durbar Square and the surrounding architectural complex are World Heritage Sites, and it is here that Patan's pulse is measured. However, this seems more authentic than any other. Perhaps because I agree with snake charmers who show their skills in front of curious groups among which I do not distinguish a single foreigner. Or for its kind inhabitants, who give me sincere smiles when our eyes meet. Or because it never ceases to amaze me that one of the oldest Buddhist cities in the world, founded in the third century B.C. continue in such good condition. It seems that time has stopped.
Bhaktapur It is the third largest city in the Kathmandu Valley and also the third vertex of Unesco's protected cities. Although there are only 14 kilometers that separate Bhaktapur from the capital, here life takes place in a very different way, as if time had stopped. The 'city of devotees' (this is the meaning of its name in Sanskrit) dominated all of Nepal politically and economically for centuries, but since the Gorkha conquest in the late 1700s the city was isolated from the outside world. It opened again to Nepal just 50 years ago, when the road between the city and the capital was built.
Of all the beautiful buildings we found in Durbar Square between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries, Suresh points out one in particular. It is the Yaksheswor Mahadev temple, inspired by the Pashupatinath temple of Kathmandu but with an important difference: It is decorated with erotic wood carvings. He tells me with a smile on his lips that these figures were sculpted to increase the birth rate, which at that time (the fifteenth century was running) was very low. They believed that if the faithful saw that the gods enjoyed sex they would do the same. The measure was a resounding success, although then there was no way to put a brake on it. This city is ordered according to the Newarian criteria, that is, it is divided into different toles (neighborhoods) They are articulated around a square with a well or a fountain and an altar. This is the meeting point of the neighbors when they come to get water or to do laundry. The life of the inhabitants continues its course with total normality without being bothered by the travelers who roam the streets. The floor of one of the dozens of squares that I cross is covered with hundreds of clay pots in the middle of the cooking process, from which a slight smoke rises under the impassive gaze of the potters.
Soil of vessels in Bhaktapur © Félix Lorenzo
It is unthinkable to travel to Nepal and not visit the Lumbini locality, a village of Terai where the founder of Buddhism was born, Siddharta Gautama (V-IV century BC). People come to know the sacred garden where their mother gave birth and that, according to the scriptures, was on the road to the disappeared capital of the family clan, Kapilavastu. They also come to know the Puskarni pond, in which he bathed for the first time before becoming buddha (the 'awake', the 'enlightened'). Declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1997, Lumbini is made up of a couple of dusty streets and a few houses of adobe and straw. Of course, to be one of the great Buddhist pilgrimage centers, with more than 400,000 visits a year, we must recognize that it has managed to maintain its original charm. One of the most beautiful images is that of the monks and faithful who, every day, they sit under the sacred Bodhi tree -where Buddha received enlightenment- to recite his prayers.
Chitwan National Park It is nestled in the lower Terai region, where the subtropical climate predominates. With an area of more than 900 km2, there are more than 50 types of mammals, some of them in danger of extinction, such as Indian rhinoceros or Bengal tiger, while crocodiles and so-called Ganges dolphins swim in its waters.
In order to see the elusive tiger up close, Suresh recommends me to take a walk in the park on elephant. In addition to procuring an excellent viewpoint, this animal knows when to stop if it detects any danger (such as snakes lurking in trees). In the afternoon I try my luck again, this time by jeep, and, although I do not agree with the tiger, I have the pleasure of observing a rhinoceros. Our meeting lasts only a few seconds, but the emotion I have felt when I have it so close is maintained for the rest of the day.
Although for many it is usually the starting point - from here the best walks leave - Pokhara is the final destination of my trip, and the third most important city in Nepal, with almost 200,000 inhabitants. The city grew thanks to the trade route that connected Tibet with India. But for those of us who haven't come for a walk, this city is the ideal place to rest after the intensity of the trip, although Suresh has other plans for me: I have prepared an excursion at dawn in which, he says, the views are spectacular. With the morning mist stalking we set off on a beautiful ascending path between rice fields. For half an hour we walk in silence while we see how the mist disappears as the sun rises.
River in the Lumbini region © Félix Lorenzo
I like the feeling of peace that is breathed and I still like the panoramic view that is appreciated in our destination, the viewpoint of Sarangkot (at 1,592 meters of altitude). We were lucky, because we clearly spotted the Himalayas (in Sanskrit 'snow home', hence for the local population those summits that do not have snow on their top - which usually occurs below 3,500 meters - do not receive the name himälaya). From the highest mountain range on Earth, with ten of the fourteen peaks over 8,000 meters high, including Everest (8,848 m), we can see some of its peaks: the Dhaulagiri (8,167 m), and the Annapurnas (8,091 m), which in Sanskrit means 'goddess of crops'. This set of five peaks are considered by mountaineers the most dangerous to ascend on planet Earth.
After breakfast I am prepared for the excursion to Phewa Lake, the largest and most beautiful of the many in Pokhara. I rent a canoe and let myself be guided by its calm and dark waters. Sitting in this tiny little boat in the middle of the huge lake and with the giant snowy peaks of the Himalayas as a backdrop I realize how small I am. In the center of the lake, there is a sacred temple, the Barahi, where hundreds of boats go (especially on Saturdays) to sacrifice birds in honor of a group of Newarian goddesses.
During my last night in Nepal, I dine by the lake with some friends who have just arrived in Pokhara to start a trekking. They are so excited that I want to accompany them. The meeting has motivated me to come back again and get a little closer to the roof of the world.
* This article has been published in issue 62 of Condé Nast Traveler magazine
* You may also be interested ...
- Photographs of the Himalaya route: the adventure of Nepal
- Routes to spirituality
- All spiritual trips
- Reflections from the top of the world
Chitwan National Park © Félix LorenzoSee 20 photos
Adventure in Nepal