Summer in Nepal

My blog looks forsaken. And it’s not because I haven’t been travelling. In fact, I’d count 2009 as the ‘Year of Travel’! Just before coming to the US, I went on a holiday to Ladakh and Nepal and came back with a renewed enthusiasm for the Indian subcontinent. The diversity of culture, religion and geography that’s bound by a shared history couldn’t be starker in any other region.

How do I describe Nepal? Without going into the hackneyed “Himalayan Kingdom juxtaposing modern with the traditional” tripe, I’ll say it’s where Bob Marley meets Om Mani Padme Hum. It’s the place where dreadlocked westerners smoke charas with dreadlocked sadhus. Rastafarians meet Nirvana? Maybe!

It’s also a place I went to ten years ago when the royalty was still revered…..and then the royal massacre changed Nepal. This blog is not about the political landscape of the country, even though politics of the nation has had an impact on tourism quite a bit. Who would want to be stuck in an eight hour long bandh (like we were) on the road when you’ve come on a holiday?

Summer seems like aeons away, but the two places that stand out in my memory are Pokhara and Thamel. Pokhara is a popular lake town, where nifty “German bakeries” jostle for attention with momos on wheels. Live rock bands entertain you with Pink Floyd and Metallica in a pub called Busy Bee, even as you guzzle beer and munch on a wood oven smoked Pizza under the starry sky. And of course, there is the Fewa Tal boat ride, which is de rigueur in the tourist itinerary.

The lakeside too is a tourist hotspot with exotic eating joints and souvenir shops dotted along the lake. It’s easy to be equally charmed by the wonderful sights around Pokhara. Pamay is one of those idyllic villages near Pokhara which epitomise a bygone era. We sprawled on the grass as cattle grazed nearby, their tinkling bells interrupting the silence. It was a hot day and I wished I could take a dip in the cool stream.

On our way back, we stopped at Dunatapari, a restaurant famous for its fish curry. Duna means a bowl and tapari means a plate made of leaves. The ambience was deliberately rustic, with mud plastered walls and floors. We sat on the ground over durries which matched the theme. The menu seemed elaborate for such a place and we chose the obvious: a bowl of fish curry with a plate of rice for everyone. The flavours of the delicately spiced curry played a tango on my taste buds, reaching a crescendo every time I bit into the succulent pieces of fish. Not everything flavourful is fattening after all!

Talking of flavourful and yet unfattening, another epicurean delight that I partook of was the Thakali thali in Kathmandu. Thakalis are a community who have been cooks for generations in Nepal and this fact should be recommendation enough. I ordered phee, a sweet alcoholic drink made from rice, as a side drink. It tasted like sweetened yogurt gone bad. No, I didn’t like it and I decided to concentrate on the food which was every bit as delish as I’d imagined it to be.

This was in Kathmandu, which gives me segue into the account of the rest of my stay there. I visited all three durbars this time: one in Kathmandu, one in Bhaktapur and the third one in Patan. Durbar means the court of a King. I was especially excited about the one at Bhaktapur, a Unesco World Heritage site. The durbar boasts of the tallest temple in Asia. Walking through the labyrinthine red brick roads, I felt awed by the ancient buildings. I imagined the royal retinue making their rounds in those streets, the power and the glory apparent in the royal visages. I envied the old stone bricks which are the only present witnesses about what once was.

I was staying at Seema’s, which was at a walking distance from Thamel, a melange of the east and the west. Shops selling dream catchers compete with curios selling Thankas, and silverwares. Colourful handmade paper shops squeeze themselves in the crowded bazaar. Sounds of hip-hop and reggae meld with Buddhist chants to create a Shangri La-like experience. The days in Nepal waltzed by, bringing the week’s vacay to a close. I still had lots to do. For one, I still hadn’t tried Newari cuisine; at least not the authentic one. Well, there’s always next time when one is a neighbour!