Sunday, December 30, 2007

More temples in Kathmandu

When we returned to Ranjan's place from trekking in the mountains, he asked us if we saw any wildlife. We responded that we had seen many monkeys. He laughed, "Monkeys aren't wild animals in Nepal. They're everywhere."

Back in Kathmandu, we visited a Hindu temple and saw again what he meant. The temple site was crawling with hundreds of monkeys. At one point, a whole swarm of monkeys suddenly crossed the path all around us. Unlike the monkeys in China, these ones didn't rob or intimidate us.

We also visited the Boudhanath temple - a huge Tibetan Buddhist stupa. It brought back fond memories of Lhasa as we walked the kora (clockwise circuit) with Tibetan refugees. It has actually been startling to see a more lively Tibetan culture in Nepal than in Tibet...

Friday, December 21, 2007

Osho Tapoban

After five days of trekking, we felt like relaxing with a few days of meditation. We had met a yogi in a bookstore in Pokhara who was pretty intense, and we had met a couple who did a hardcore ten-day course (the guy left after only two days). Still, we had enjoyed six days of doing nothing on the Trans-Siberian Express, so we felt up for three days of thinking nothing at Osho Tapoban, a commune/retreat near Kathmandu.

Our first impressions were overwhelmingly negative. After being led to our room, we were left without any explanations of what to do. Eventually, we found the kitchen for dinner and figured out that everyone was heading to a 'satsang.' Expecting a meditation session, we were shocked to find a cult-like religious ceremony with a video sermon, prayers to the great mystic Osho and everyone in robes. After the 'gruel' (dal baht) for dinner, all that was missing was chanting of "Leader, Leader." That night, we made plans to fake illness and leave early.

The next morning, though, we attended our first meditation session and we met some fun people, so we warmed to the idea of spending three days here. Over the three days, we attended about ten one-hour meditations. We had half-expected to spend twelve hours a day in strict silence, so we were pleasantly surprised to have opportunities to eat and socialize.

The meditations themselves were actually quite fun. Osho (the great mystic) designed meditations for the modern world - first you must clear your mind of the distractions and stimuli of daily life, then you can meditate. Passive means of clearing your mind could be humming or concentrating on your breathing, but most of the meditations were active, meaning about half-an-hour of jumping, dancing, yoga or shaking - to basically wear you out. Then, suddenly all is silent and you can meditate.

Although we are certainly no closer to True Enlightenment (and not interested in it), we did find that the meditations were very relaxing, and excellent techniques to focus the mind.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Trekking in the Annapurnas

We spent five days trekking (a glorified word for hiking) in the Annapurna range of the Himalayas. We had incredible weather, the views were breath-taking and we had a great time. Unfortunately, Marieke suffered from some very bad food poisoning for two days, but who can think of a better place to rest and recupperate than in a tiny 'resort' town in the Himalayas.

The path led between small farming villages, past incredible terraced cropland cut into the hillsides, across rivers, through rhododendron forests and always with jaw-dropping views of the mountains. We'll let photos tell the rest of the story...

Monday, December 10, 2007

Kathmandu Valley

The Kathmandu Valley is home to three cities - each formerly its own country until Nepal was formed - Kathmandu, Patan and Bahktapur. The highlight of touring each city is the 'Durbar Square' - the square surrounding the former royal palaces. The squares are packed with temples. In fact, every street is packed with temples and shrines. Most Nepalis are Hindu, Buddhist or both, and spirituality plays a role in their everyday lives (which is strikingly different from China, where only monks seemed religious).

The blend of Buddhism and Hinduism is particularly apparent at Swayambhunath, a temple to the west of Kathmandu. There is a large Buddhist stupa (the white mound), but there are also nearby shrines to Hindu gods. The temple is also known as the Monkey Temple, as holy monkeys roam the site (none tried to rob us).

Kathmandu was once famous as a favourite hang-out for hippies - particularly an area called Freak Street. Since the 1980s, the focus of tourism has shifted to trekking in the Himalayas. Tourists now mostly stay in an area of town called Thamel that has perfected making you feel at home. The restaurants all serve international cuisine (American, French, Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Korean, Indian and occasionally even Nepalese) and the quality is incredible. We've had nachos, pizza, and humus (among many other meals) that is more authentic than in most restaurants back home, and all made by Nepalis. Delicious!

Friday, December 07, 2007


We are staying with our friend Ranjan, who lives and works in Dhulikhel - which is a small town about 30 km (or 2 hours by bus) from Kathmandu. Along with two colleagues, he is running the Kathmandu Alternative Energy and Power Group, which is researching small wind turbine design.

His home/office has a beautiful setting, with views of the Himalayas from every window. It is very peaceful, and a local woman prepares amazing meals for them (and us). It is a fantastic 'home base' for our travels in Nepal.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

On the rooftop of the world...

Lhasa and Tibet were amazing, albeit quite cold... We spent our first four days in Tibet in the Lhasa, seeing the city and trying to figure out how we were going to get from Lhasa to the border of Nepal. The highlights of Lhasa for us were:

-Walking the 'kora' around the main temple with Tibetan pilgrims and the walking the inner kora (inside the temple) as the only non-Tibetans.

-Seeing monks debating Buddhist theology at a monastery near Lhasa.

-Walking around Potala Palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lama.

On our fifth day in Tibet, we went on a two day trip outside of Lhasa with a British/Brazilian couple. At the first monastery we got to witness (from afar) a Tibetan sky burial - where the dead are carried to the top of a mountain and cut into pieces to be eaten by animals. As Buddhists, Tibetans believe that this process completes the circle of life and fits with the teachings of reincarnation. Despite it being quite intense, the experience was quite spiritual - in some ways more logical and natural than burials in the West. The best experience was definitely staying at a nunnery. The nunnery itself lies in a river valley, in which thousands of lengths of prayer flags were blowing in the wind. It was an amazing sight. The nunnery has a natural hot springs, so we got to escape the cold and warm our blood with its heat...

After this two day excursion, we headed off to Nepal along the Friendship Highway with a British couple in a Landcruiser. Although the trip took 5 days, it left plenty of time for visiting sites and monasteries along the way. The first day's views were magnificent - turquoise lakes surrounded by mountains. On the first two nights we stopped in Gyantse and Shigatse, which were fairly close to one another so we got to spend the best part of each day visiting their monasteries. The third day we made it as far a Shigar - a town that had absolutely nothing going for it with the exception of a string of guesthouses and an office where you could buy entrance tickets to Everest base camp. On the fourth day we got to see Everest (or Qomolanga in Tibetan)! Despite the fact that we reached Everest (north) base camp (on the Tibetan side) we were still a good 10-20 km away, so Everest still looked as though it was quite small! That night we spent in an even smaller and more rustic Tibetan town called Old Tingri. The next day we spent all morning driving the last bit of the Friendship Highway, most of which was not graded, let alone asphalted. So the last bit of the trip was quite bumpy. Coming over the the last stretch of the highway, the landscape changed dramatically from rocky and dry to lush and green as we approached Nepal. You don't get too many borders which are so physically obvious and the differences between the neighbouring peoples so different.