Pinay in Nepal: The Land of Dreams, Mountains, and Revelations │ Pinay.com
By Loyva Conje-Fernandez
The encounter began with breathlessness.
More than the cold, a disorienting sense of oxygen deprivation made me lose my balance for a second. I held on to bricks; a pile of them welcomed us at the hangar amidst scattered construction materials. The airport seemed suspended in time, a monument to the reality of incompletion – which seemed to portray Nepal as a whole.
I had been mulling the idea of kissing the ground upon landing but decided against it once I took that first step off the ladder. I took a deep, unhurried gulp of air instead. Hello, Kathmandu, lovely to breathe you.
Amidst the jostling and pushing of the motley crowd of tourists and locals, I saw it: a line of bluish shadows along the horizon – the Himalayas. I forgot the bedlam for a moment and just gazed outwardly and as far as I could into the clouds. Even from where I stood, the mountains beckoned. Soon, I sighed. Soon.
That moment felt like a dream.
Inside the airport was an entirely different reality altogether: a kilometric queue at the immigration (visas were issued upon arrival), aggravated foreigners, and the tardy trickle of time. Again, a feeling of being suspended came over me. What a strange and yet intoxicating sensation. Nepal is beginning to introduce itself as an unreal reality. This was my first epiphany.
We arrived on the third day of Dashain and Nepalis were in a festive mood. But that also meant they weren’t exactly very happy to be working. It was one of the biggest Hindu festivals, and many citizens were making the journey to temples in far-flung areas of the country to celebrate and reunite with their families. There were a handful of employees in the airport, and the movement was slow, bordering on languid. I would learn, later on, that this is the pace of Nepal. RUSH is not a word they are accustomed to.
But my patience did not waver because I had Everest to look forward to, and even if our itinerary inevitably suffered from that three-hour delay in the immigration department – worrying our guide and driver needlessly – we managed to make the most out of what was left of that first day. It was the cold and that bluish line along the horizon that saved everything and made it all worthwhile.
Days of Discovery
Our first destination was Thamel, in the heart of the Kathmandu Valley. It is a teeming tourist district with all the requisites of transient living. Although many of the shops were closed because of the festival, there was a palpable animation in the air. You immediately know you are in the action zone. It was unlike the rest of Nepal, as we would later on realize. Thamel was probably the only part of the country that simulated an artifice of modernity. Everywhere else in the mountains contained only the essence of Nepali culture and tradition.
In the midst of the brisk Thamel excitement is a quiet oasis known simply as the Thamel Eco-Resort. It was to be our home in Nepal, and although we didn’t stay there for consecutive days in a row, every return felt like a homecoming. The people were warm, eager to serve, and happily curious about our nationality. I had been mistaken several times throughout the trip as Japanese, Korean, Nepali, or Chinese. They were very amused to know we are, in fact, Filipinos (Flippins, as they would pronounce). We had Spartan accommodations (not even an aircon in our room, though there was hot water, thankfully), but the food was divine. I mistakenly thought I would lose weight during this trip, given the unfamiliar gastronomic territory, but I ended up frequenting the buffet stations for their delightful (mostly) Indian cuisine.
The surprises kept materializing in waves, and the rest of the trip turned into days of discovery: both amazing and paralyzing, all of which will change my perception of national identity, cultural hegemony, and even frighteningly: my perception of self.
Aboard a beat-up, 90’s Toyota Corolla that belched a nefarious combination of petrol fumes and kerosene, we wandered through the two borders of Nepal to see what it is actually famous for: the mountains. My husband and I aren’t trekkers, by any means, but we had planned our trip in such a way that we would still see the peaks of the Himalayas, from any vantage point possible. That first point was Nagarkot, one of the most scenic spots of the Bhaktapur District, northwest of Kathmandu Valley.
Nagarkot is a famous sunset and sunrise viewing point for the Lantang Range of the Himalayas. On the cloudy afternoon of our arrival, we were blessed to see the peak of Dorje Lhakpa peeking from the fluff. I fell to my knees in tears upon seeing this minor miracle.
But the real poignant moment happened when I saw Sagarmatha –the Nepali name for the highest peak in the world— Mt. Everest. The literal translation is “forehead in the sky,” as only its black peak appeared from many of the viewing spots around Nepal. Every time I lay my eyes on Mt. Everest it appeared to me as the shyest of the eight highest peaks in the world (there are a total of 14, globally, and eight are found in Nepal alone). Even in the photographs that I took of the Himalayan range, it was always Everest that seemed to elude clarity, crispness, and light, almost as if it does not want to be seen. Did that have something to do with the spirits of long-dead and lost mountaineers now residing in its deep crevasses that it makes its massive breadth less visible, less attractive to those who might want to dare? One could only ponder.
We took our travel consultant’s advice and booked a domestic mountain flight. It was a popular activity for non-trekking tourists. One such airline, Buddha Air, was famous for its refund policy: if the view is terrible, you will get your airfare back. Buddha Air offered the best flights to the Himalayas, because they have mastered the tricky navigation of the often cloudy and turbulent region. Having experienced bouts of rains and overcast skies, we weren’t too hopeful about perfect visibility on air. But we proceeded with the flight anyway.
Half an hour into the wait at the boarding gates, the sky started clearing up. And when we finally took off, we knew it was going to be a wonderful day to see the elusive Mt. Everest. As we ascended, the captain would point out the mountains within our line of sight. And since everyone got window seats on these chartered flights, we all had our cameras out, and our noses were pressed so close to the windows that we fogged up the glass. Everyone had an opportunity to go into the cockpit for a better view, and when it finally came time for me to go, I could not hold back my tears. The co-pilot, a woman, saw me crying and asked me to stop or she “might cry too.” We were both sniffling as I took photos. It was impossible not to feel a depth of emotions up there, so close to THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN IN THE WORLD. What came over me was a feeling of deep sadness (it was so close and yet so far!) and breathless awe (my gosh, there it IS!): both too strong to contain, both painful and yet boundless in their effect. An avalanche formed on one of the peaks just then, and it felt like the perfect punctuation to an experience I would most likely NEVER forget.
There were more encounters with these beautiful landforms. Nepal is a mountain country, after all. And even the lowest valley stood 800 meters above sea level. So every elevation offered some perspective of the Himalayas. And each time was as special as all the others because every vista had a story, and an even more engaging journey behind it.
One of our most unforgettable road trips was to Pokhara, gateway to the Himalayas. Within its vicinity are three of the eight highest peaks in Nepal: Dhaulagiri, Annapurna 1, and Manaslu. Trekkers who aspire to climb Everest usually try to conquer one of these three peaks first, as practice climb. And we were there to see Annapurna from Sarangkot, another viewing point with fantastic sunset and sunrise vistas, we were told. We were scheduled to wake up at 5am to drive 20 minutes to Sarangkot from our lakeside hotel and wait for sunrise on a cliff with the best view of Annapurna. The trip from Thamel to Pokhara usually took 6 hours, traffic considered. I was prepared to sleep the ride through.
But, as luck would dictate, our plans didn’t exactly happen without a hitch that proceeded to become an amazing experience, which in turn would jolt us out of our wits. I posted about the experience on my Facebook page, and I would like to quote it here, as there is possibly no better accounting of the events that happened than that which I had written with raw emotions out of spontaneity:
“A lesson on patience and cultural reality:
Somewhere along the remaining 90km of sometimes dirt, sometimes asphalt road en route to Pokhara, we stopped. An accident had just happened up ahead, some few hundred meters from the Bandipur Trail. Two overloaded commuter buses plowed head on to each other in what I could only surmise as another case of indiscriminate overtaking – based on my three days’ worth of long road trips – which seems to be the norm here in Nepal. Here, motorists communicated only through a series of prolonged and repetitive horn honking. Road signs, warnings, traffic lights are few to nonexistent.
There were two fatalities. Both of them male. One of them decapitated.
Because there is no reliable public transport here, people walk. To everywhere. Nearly two hours into the wait, we saw a procession of wailing wives & widows, screaming children, tense riot policemen, somber government officers, priests, and relatives of the wounded and the deceased. As it turns out, nothing and no one moves until all parties involved come to an amicable agreement. We wait.
By then people were on edge, locals and tourists alike. A police truck was pummeled with rocks, breaking the windshield in a spider web of cracks. Still, we wait.
Minutes before the crowds were dispersed by army men brandishing tear gas bombs and M14s, the body of one of the victims passed before us. He was wrapped in a blanket, which was then tied to a bamboo pole. Four men carried the pole on their shoulders. The crowds parted. The road was silent and still.
Our guide, sensing our bewilderment, shrugged and said: “This is Nepal.” No explanations. No apologies. None were needed.
Indeed, this is Nepal. Everyone stops for the dead. And everyone, however unwittingly, shares in the grief of those left behind.”
It was a jarring, horrendous, and yet tremendously eye-opening experience. It made me feel unworthy of everything that I enjoyed; of every little comfort I demanded. It made me feel very, very humbled. And although it left a bad taste in my mouth, I took that to mean that I should be thankful for being alive.
Nepal continued to unravel before us in the most unexpected of ways. Every turn, every blind corner, every stretch of unpaved, dusty road was a story waiting to reveal itself to the most eager of witnesses. Thankfully, my husband and I had an unlimited supply of enthusiasm. And the gems of truth, both rough and polished, appeared before us effortlessly and with the clarity one only finds with an open mind.
A mountain would save the entire trip to Pokhara once again, and I would find myself silently thanking these mountains for always offering us peace and solace. It seemed they were watching over us, towering above us with a collar of fuzz like a mother wearing a scarf. Since our sojourn to Sarangkot proved unsuccessful again, we had to spend our days in Pokhara doing mostly touristy activities: a visit to the International Mountain Museum (this, I highly recommend!), boating by the lake, carpet shopping in a tiny Tibetan community, and the usual jaunts. On our last day, it was Annapurna that bid us a proper farewell in that lakeside village. The moment the sun settled on a perfect spot just above the icecap, I knew we were once again blessed.
A Leap of Faith
One of the most profound experiences I’ve had in Nepal didn’t happen in the many temples – both centuries old and relatively new – around the country, but in a deep gorge carved between two mountains (again, the mountains!) with an angry river frothing below.
The Last Resort in Nepal is located close to the Tibet border, in a tiny village called Tatopani in the Bagmati Zone. This was where I jumped from a 160 meter rope bridge suspended over the turbulent Bhote Kosi River. The 100 meter free fall turned my insides out, made me feel weightless, and gave me an intense feeling of freedom. In the few, short seconds of the drop I had a moment of peace. There was silence and there was calm. And I have never felt smaller in my life. Enclosed by two high walls of pristine forests and giant trees, the rapids howling beneath, I felt so irrelevant and so tiny. And yet…so alive and happy to be so!
(PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE LAST RESORT)
Fair warning to all who would brave the jump, the trek uphill is anything but pleasurable. To inexperienced climbers such as my husband and I, it felt like the last climb of our lives. It took us 30 minutes to return to the resort: breathless, parched, and ready to pass out.
We would have gladly done it again, the canyon swing, but just thinking about the ascent was enough to discourage us. But we made a vow, just then, to return to the Last Resort, healthier and in better shape to take on the bungy AND the canyon swing both.
Once is Not Enough
These words are on the banner of a Nepal tourism website. Before the trip, this statement was irrelevant to me. On our last breakfast at the Eco-Resort in Thamel, I was inconsolable. Leaving felt like a betrayal, as though I was turning my back on a place that I’ve grown to love. Sitting on our bed, wearing a bibou sarouel, my tank top soaked in tears, an open suitcase before me, I began to realize why it is impossible to experience all of Nepal in just one visit.
The country, its people, the mountains are all pages from a book that is yet to be completed and retold by each person who finds in them a home. No one leaves Nepal without having changed in some way or form: spiritually, emotionally, and even politically. Our guide, Bishnu, told us how corrupt their government is and how poor his countrymen are, and I could not help but commiserate with him. Our plight is similar in the Philippines. And yet…and yet…somehow we have so much more to be thankful for! The smallest things that we now regard as insignificant: paved roads, public transport, electricity, infrastructure, technology, connectivity – things that Nepal has yet to bring to its people – are things that we should be grateful to have. It dawned on me that we must stop thinking so miserably of our third world existence and rise from the depths of our self-imposed poverty of ambition. Perhaps every Filipino should visit Nepal, if only to realize that we aren’t as hopeless as we perceive ourselves to be.
This is why I want to return. In Nepal I found my motivation to become a fuller, more productive person. I aspire to reach Namche Bazaar, the town closest to Everest, to commune with those whose climbing goals are much, much loftier than mine, so that I can be inspired to ascend to summits way beyond the reach of my sight. And finally, I want to return because my story is waiting to be written (and there is really so much more to tell!); the twists are yet to unfold; and the conclusion is as promising as the sunrise in Sarangkot.
Currently fixated on the idea of retirement, she has become a chronic dabbler with a penchant for all things artistic, but is first & foremost a perennial student of the school of life.
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