You start realising Nepal will be something different in your “Trips Portfolio” before your airplane even lands. It begins with a muffled and diffused awe in the passengers cabin: every traveller knows the cloud banks’ upper surface is a sacred curtain put there to let the show of next adventure begin.
Nothing to argue over. It’s physics, it’s nature, it’s fixed.
So, you decide to put your book aside, follow the direction of that murmur and take a look through the small oval window.
The moment you see those impressive triangles bite the clouds like forgotten gods’ teeth, is the moment you understand you are a small man about to do 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 around the corner, like anywhere, especially in the tourists-hungry Tamel neighbourhood, in Kathmandu.
But you also have the Ason neighbourhood, which is a much better option for a stroll. It lets you mingle with locals and experience the hectic life of Nepalese people, plus it is a much wiser option for your shopping. Go there to buy those tasty masala mixes or teas.
Roughly, 80% of Nepal’s population is Hindu, with a 10% Buddhists minority.
The peaceful cohabitation of these two groups, despite the massive statistic difference, is surprising (in a Western perspective). They pray together and even share some of their holy places and rituals, in a relaxed, respectful and long-lasting “friendship”.
Both Hinduism and Buddhism here have a clear aftertaste of older pagan myths and it is nearly impossible to encompass the multi-layered system of rituals, deities, cults and symbols that sets the pace of Nepal’s day-to-day life.
In this country everything seems to lean towards the mountains. The Himalaya. Of course.
That’s where the real adventure begins. I skipped the more touristic Annapurna Circuit or Everest Base Camp and went for a less crowded path: the Manaslu Circuit.
Spoiler alert: I paid the toll of a debatable physical condition and of a backpack burdened with photographic equipment, not the ideal combo when dealing with extreme environments. I have been in pain throughout the whole first week, until I accepted to cope with a slightly humiliating but necessary solution… which, on a trek, most of the times translates into “less weight”. Prakash, our guide, proposed to share part of my weight, allowing me to enjoy the second half of the circuit and take proper photos. That still stands as an unforgettable lesson.
Manaslu is the 8th highest mountain in the world (8.163 mt, 26.781 ft). The circuit is a “tea-house trek”, which means that accommodations are 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 expert trekker and, in general, my range of experience in mountainous environments 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. Prakash used to repeat that at that height our thoughts linger in our memories for longer, probably due to rarefied air.
The circuit unfolds through a Tibetan-culture region, which means Buddhist customs, no meat, almost vegetarian diet, lots of charm and peaceful atmosphere.
The national Nepalese dish is Dal Bhat, a lentils soup accompanied by rice and few other siders, like curry potatoes, a very tasty vegetable called sak, and a quite limited range of other options.
Nepalese people can eat Dal Bhat twice a day and be happy. Tour guides kept on repeating “Dal Bhat power, 24 hours” and actually in a poor-in-animal-proteins diet, it is a very effective energiser, even though for our spoiled stomachs it is a little bit too much to handle so repetitively.
Another constant element in the mountain diet is garlic, which helps prevent (and cure) mountain sickness.
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 country and will soon hit these secluded regions like another earthquake. Hopefully with a better outcome.
It is heart-breaking to see children perform in a half day hard duties that would normally take 2 minutes, with proper equipment. But Nepalese people are strong, you can easily cross path with old men, women, children carrying up and down, to and from the valleys, fully loaded big traditional baskets weighing on their forehead only.
I believe you have not really travelled, if nothing has changed in you when you return.
I believe traditional cultures withhold lessons for us to learn.
This is why I try to leave my soul half-open when I travel: to let those lessons in.
My favourite image from Nepal is not a photo, but a memory: 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 a 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
MAN GOING TO THE TEMPLE
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 site. 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.
KATHMANDU - DURBAR SQUARE
Devotees at the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu.
Hindu woman praying
Students chilling out
A moment of relax over the Boudhanath Stupa
WAITING FOR KUMARI
The hopeful eyes of a man staring at Kumari’s window. The Kumari, also known as Living Goddess, is a young prepubescent girl considered by Hindus as manifestation of the divine female energy (Devi). There are several Kumaris spread across the country, but the main one lives in a palace in the centre of Kathmandu. They are believed to lose their deity with the first menstruation, or even with serious illness or major blood loss. Nepalese Hindus worship their Kumaris, who rarely show themselves in public. This is why devotees stare at her window, hoping she will appear briefly.
LARKE PASS - MOUNT MANASLU
You are not in the mountains. The mountains are in you - John MuirIn the year of my 40th birthday I climbed up to the highest altitude I ever reached. I am not sure should I seek hidden meanings behind this 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 am proud of. The mountains inside us. It’s been a journey among those mountains and a unique chance to take a deeper look inside my self. 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 PassA short sleep before heading out to the 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 what seemed to be a very nice photo of the starry sky over the pass, but during the 1o mins I took for a hot tea, dense clouds broke in, covering the clear dark sky. 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. Apparently, the local economy is quite linked to them. People living along the Manaslu Circuit are 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, #tibetantea is a mixture of tea, salt and yak butter. Even local guides were not enthusiast at 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 there 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 to the end of the circuit. Bishan was carrying a 30 kg bag, weighing entirely on his forehead (the Nepalese way). From that moment on, he became to me the symbol of this people’s strength. One day, during a break, 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 “culturally 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.
When 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 on the small overhanging trails. They tend not to say “pardon”.
Nepalese young students
In an Himalayan village, young girl testing her "porter" skills.
On the Manaslu Circuit we occasionally crossed path 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.