Thursday, October 15, 2015

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Kathmandu and Pokhara (Nepal)

Tacking on a few days for some sightseeing at the end of my assignment, I visited the Boudhanath temple complex in the Kathmandu valley. A UNESCO World Heritage site, entry into the Great Boudha Stupa was closed due to earthquake damage, but the outer buildings are well worth a visit regardless. One of them houses a prayer wheel the size of a car with a big metal rail installed for worshippers to spin it as they circumambulate clockwise. The Guru Lhakhang Monastery was richly decorated with elaborate murals even in the stairwells, colorful hanging textiles, and giant gold statues. A Buddhist monk wrapped a white scarf around my neck and prayed for me in a ritual that involved chanting and throwing rice grains onto the pages of his book?!

Pokhara, only about a half hour by plane from Kathmandu, is a lakeside town framed by mountains. It is a popular stop either before or after trekking the Annapurna Circuit in the Himalayas. Sadly, I didn't have the time or money - or the legs - to do such a thing at the moment. But the hotel arranged a taxi to take me to see one of the sights: the view of the mountain Machhapuchchhre, sacred to the god Shiva and off limits to climbers. It’s best to capture at dawn so I set my alarm for 4:00 a.m., only to find no one else awake besides the security guard. Apparently, I had misunderstood the man at reception and was an hour earlier than I needed to be! They roused the driver, and we drove out in the dark and up the mountainsides. I had expected a hike, but evidently, the driver intended to take me all the way to the viewpoint. It was comically pitch black when we arrived, so after taking in the town lights, we adjourned to a neighboring shack. The proprietor of this makeshift cafĂ© was just waking up, and yawning in her house dress, she put the kettle on to make us tea. My driver and another who appeared out of nowhere made some lighthearted conversation, probably about the silly foreigner who woke him up in the middle of the night. In the growing light, the site revealed a view of Pokhara’s lake in the distance and the Seti Gandaki ("White River") winding through the valley. With the haze of dawn, I wasn’t sure exactly which of the mountains was the sacred one so I took pictures indiscriminately, along with the rest of the group that had gathered. As with any mountain chain, the cloud cover is unpredictable in the Himalayas. I just had noticed that some of the clouds seemed to have more of a distinct edge to them, when the sun shone through, and we all realized this was actually Machhapuchchhre, rising at least twice as high as the mountains we’d been photographing madly. This makes sense as I later learned there is about a 6500 m change in altitude within this 30 km. Unfortunately, this was the one glimpse we had before the clouds shifted again and we gave up with the full morning upon us. Along the steep road down, we passed small groups of young men running up. They were training in the military. Some of them looked pretty miserable with heavy packs on a strap slung around their forehead, which seems to be the preferred load-bearing style in Nepal. It made me a little relieved I didn’t do the hike.

Pokhara is the second most visited city by tourists in Nepal. The differences were jarring. Every business was either a hotel, restaurant, spa, souvenir shop, or hiking store. I didn't mind so much as it gave me a chance to purchase some fine textiles to bring home. Cashmere, anyone? Seriously, one shopkeeper going through all the grades and mixtures made my head spin. I studiously avoided anything more than window-shopping in the trekking stores as who knew if I could get those flood gates shut in time. As it was, I bought enough to make me nervous about the bag weight coming home. Despite it being off-season, I saw more foreigners than I’d seen in my previous 3 weeks in the country, even chatting to a couple of backpackers in an attempt to share the huge portion I ordered.  Pokhara was virtually untouched by the earthquake, but Nepalis were very concerned – and rightly so – that the international media coverage had scared away all the tourists. The upcoming high season would be the real test: Was the drop in visitors temporary? Or would the blow to this significant part of Nepal’s economy be permanent? Despite my comments about the earthquake damage I’ve seen, it was by far not as widespread as the media let on. It’s a gorgeous country, and I would urge people to still consider going… maybe now might even be the best time!

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Rich and Julie Get A Move On

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