You start realizing Nepal will be something different in your list of trips before your airplane even lands.
No matter what you’re doing to muffle up the waiting, you will feel the cabin’s population fermenting and humming in surprise. Any traveler knows that the cloud bank is a sacred and dogmatic curtain that keeps the awaited destination secret.
Nothing you can argue about, it’s physics, it’s nature, it’s fixed.
Until you decide to follow the direction of that murmur and take a look outside the small oval window. The moment you see those impressive triangles biting the clouds like forgotten gods, is the moment you understand you are a small man doing something big.
Nepal is a relatively small country with a rich menu of cultural and ethnic diversity.
Unlike other nearby countries, it is extremely safe for tourists.
In general people are welcoming, friendly, kind. Of course scams are always around the corner, like anywhere, especially in the tourists-hungry Tamel area in Kathmandu.
The Ason neighborhood is a much better option for a walk. It lets you mingle with locals and experience the hectic life of Nepalese people, or even do some shopping. Go there to buy those tasty spices you will want to bring home.
Nepal’s population is roughly for the 80% Hindus, with a 10% Buddhists minority.
The peaceful cohabitation of these two groups, despite the massive numeric difference, is surprising (from a Western perspective). Hindus and Buddhists pray together and even share some of their holy places and rituals. They don’t consider each others as opponents or as a threat. They deeply respect the other.
Both Hinduism and Buddhism here have a clear aftertaste of older pagan myths and it is nearly impossible to encompass the multilayered system of rituals, deities, cults and symbols that sets the pace of Nepali people’s lives.
And then there is the mountain. The Himalaya. Of course.
I skipped the more touristic Annapurna Circuit or Everest Base Camp and went for a less crowded path: the Manaslu Circuit.
My physical condition wasn’t optimal and my backpack was excessively burdened by the photographic equipment. This combination made the experience tough. I have been in pain for most of the time during the first week, until I accepted the idea of an alternative solution… which, on a trek, most of the times translates to “less weight”. My pride and my conscience have had to accept the compromise, but that way I could enjoy the second half of the circuit and take proper photos.
Manaslu is the 8th highest mountain in the world (8.163 mt, 26.781 ft). The circuit is a tea-house trek, that means accommodation is found along the way in the shape of tea houses, some of which are very cute and comfortable, albeit basic, others… less.
In two weeks we covered a 135 km distance, climbing up from 400 to 5100 mt: to the Larke La Pass and down again.
I am no experienced trekker and in general my range of experience in the mountains is very limited, so I was not used to the mind space the mountain, combined to the physical stress, drags you into. It’s a unique opportunity for self exploration and growth.
The circuit unfolds through a Tibetan culture region, so the people we met and the villages we crossed were Buddhist. This means no meat, almost vegetarian diet, but lots of charm and peaceful atmosphere.
The national Nepalese dish is Dal Bhat, a lentils soup accompanied by rice and few other siders, like, most of the times, curry potatoes, a very tasty vegetable called sak, and a quite limited range of other possible specialties.
A Nepalese can eat Dal Bhat twice a day and be happy. Tour guides kept on repeating “Dal Bhat power, 24 hours” and actually in a diet poor in animal proteins it is a very effective energizer, but for our spoiled stomachs it is a little bit too much to handle so repetitively.
Another constant element in the mountain diet is garlic, that helps to prevent and (in case) cure mountain sickness.
It goes without saying that the scenery is amazing, but there are the photos to witness that.
The whole Manaslu area was hit, as many others in the country, by the 2015 earthquake and the reconstruction process is ongoing. Even though the available technological resources are very limited, Chinese investments are racing up in the valleys and will soon hit these mountain regions like a earthquake again. Hopefully for the best.
It is heartbreaking to see children perform hard duties that could take 2 minutes in a half day. But Nepalese people are strong. You can figure that only when you see old men, women, children carrying huge loads in traditional baskets only held by their forehead.
I like to repeat that you have not really travelled if you’re the same person when you return.
I like to believe traditional cultures withhold lessons to learn.
I like to leave the soul half closed when I travel, to let those lessons in.
The image I brought back from Nepal is in my mind, neither in my phone nor in my camera: the joint hands of children receiving a gift. They don’t grab it, they wait for it. Doesn’t matter how thirsty or hungry or weak they are, nothing is taken for granted, everything is an unexpected gift to cuddle like a wounded bird.
“You are not in the mountains. The mountains are in you.” – John Muir.0
The Shiva Temple hosts the Hindu cremation ground and is crossed by the Bagmati River. The “Eleven Queens Temple”, according to the legend, was built in the 18th century by the Nepali king. It is made of 11 buildings like this one, one for each queen, as a proof of his love.
Aryan girl in Kathmandu
The Monkey Temple
Swayambhunath, also known as Monkey Temple, lays atop a hill west of Kathmandu. For Buddhist Newars it is probably the most sacred pilgrimage sites. Monkeys are the undisputed kings of the temple. You can easily see them “arguing” out loud with stray dogs or letting tourists treat them with snacks.
One of the many monkeys in the Swayambhunath Temple.
Devotees at the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu.
Students chilling out
A moment of relax over the Boudhanath Stupa
Larke Pass (Manaslu, NEPAL)
“You are not in the mountains. The mountains are in you.” - John Muir. In the year of my 40th birthday I climbed up to the highest altitude I ever reached. I am not sure wether I should seek hidden meanings in this fact or not. What I know is that my body wasn’t really ready for a trek like that. And it stung. My recurrent thought as I was climbing was: “I should have trained for this, I should have been prepared”. Eventually I’ve had to compromise on a couple of personal goals, but I made it to the top. Something I will be proud of eventually. The mountains inside us. It’s been a journey among those mountains and a unique chance to look inside myself. Where’s the point in traveling if at your return you’re the same as when you left?
Devotee in front of the Boudhanath Stupa.
Dharmasala (Manaslu Circuit)
Dharmashala, last stop before the Larke La Pass. It has been a short long night before heading out to the Larke Pass, leaving at 4:30 in the morning. Not the most comfortable place, but the only accommodation around, so... no choice. Amazing views though. Early in the morning before dawn I was ready for a night capture, but in the time I took for a hot tea, the clear dark sky got filled with dense clouds. No luck in this case.
One of those smiles...
I met this Nepalese woman as I was walking down from the Lho monastery. She was picking up pieces of wood, I am not sure for the monks or for herself. Her smile immediately caught my attention.
Yaks are tame, shy and majestic creatures living at higher altitudes in the Himalayan regions. Seems like the local economy is quite linked to them. The people living along the Manaslu Circuit is Tibetans, therefore they’re not allowed to slaughter animals. What I could figure by questioning guides and locals is that the many animals bred there are either brought down to the valley and sold, or used for the production of wool and milk. Butter is definitely one of the main domestic productions, both for dietary use and for candles making. As an example, Tibetan tea is a mixture of tea, salt and yak butter. Even the guides were not enthusiast by the idea of me giving it a try, but I did, of course. It has actually a very strong flavour and I am not sure the ones I tried were the best, but… you can get used to it, if you just don’t expect something tasting like tea.
Nice encounter on te way to Manaslu
Nepalese women working
Many young Nepalese people move to villages like Lho, job seeking. Most of them are absorbed by a 5 years project for the construction of a road that will reach the furthest mountain communities in this area. The national army leads the project. These young women’s task consists of crushing stones with hammers. I walked past them early in the morning on the way to my daily trek and I found them still there few minutes before the sun ended its own trek across the sky. Work conditions are tough and not much is left for social life, but still these girls could find enough (economic I guess?) reason to move here from the Kathmandu Valley.
This child only stopped his crying to pose for the photo. Then he started whining again while his parents worked in the fields.
Manaslu Circuit, day 7
On the way from Lho to Samagaon.
Bishan, Nepalese climber.
Bishan Lama and his good friend Bijaya (a guide) used to call me “Solti”. I saw Bishan for the first time at the end of a painful day, after a 17 km trek on the Manaslu Circuit (Nepal). I had just realised my backpack, also due to the photographic equipment, was too heavy and it was pulling me down. I was afraid I would not make it. Bishan was carrying a 30 kg bag, weighing entirely on his forehead through a lace, in the Nepalese style. Ever since he became to me the symbol of this people’s strength. One day, during a break on the trek, I asked him if the Larke Pass was going to be tough. He replied something in Nepalese and his colleagues laughed, then one of them told me “he said: don’t worry, I will be with you”. Bishan is a climber, he wants to become a professional climber. “Solti” means friend.
Nepalese young students
Along the "Manaslu Circuit", Dovan village. Like in all the other settlements in this region, this is the only local school.
Nepali women don’t spare themselves from hard work and long walks.
What I will remember more about children in Nepal is their snot-covered faces, which gives you kind of a perspective on what is “appropriate” and what is not in the life of a young human. This sense of perspective also defines the sense of traveling, after all. We would expect such a sun-burned face in an adult who has been ploughing the fields or sailing the seas throughout his entire life, not in a kid. And yet here we are, the world is there to give our wealthy lives a good shake and a scolding: human beings were forged to be resilient, but we insist in equipping them with a weak shell.
Woman with her child
Typical encounter on the Manaslu Circuit.
Trekking in Nepal, donkeys are a constant presence along the way. When you hear their bells approaching you better be ready to let’em through and, even more, to stay mountain-side when they walk past you. They tend not to ask “pardon”.
Nepalese young students
In an Himalayan village, young girl testing her "porter" skills.
On the Manaslu Circuit we only crossed path, every now and then, with small groups of trekkers. Trekking in Nepal is no random thing, you have to pay for trekking permits. For some specific circuits (like the Manaslu) you must have a professional guide and groups must count at least two people. This because there is no mass tourism in this area, the route is not tracked and natural events are always around the corner. But it is definitely worth the extra effort.