Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Band Baja Baaraat in the Temple of Sleeping Vishnu

This is Day 3 of Nepal Travelogue (May 15, 2013)
Sleeping Vishnu: A Sample of Nepali Art
The hilly town of Budhanilkantha, where we were staying, is famous for its unique Temple of Sleeping Vishnu. Honestly, we got to know this reason of fame only after we reached there but it was really worth it. The ton-tonnn-tonnnnn, which eventually became part of our lives, was also emanating from the same Mandir – located right in front of our window.

Every now and then, the tonn-tonn used to follow a clamor of traditional wedding bands with Misha rushing again to the window. It was quite a show - a small festival: happy kids running around and women wearing colorful traditional dresses. From their attire, and familiar Hindi, we could assume that some of the families are even coming from India to seek blessings for the newly weds.

The temple was unique mostly because it was open-air without any formal, church-like, seating arrangement. Inside, a pond, with greenish water, was the center of devotees’ attention, where an impressive sculpture of Vishnu – a Hindu God – was resting on a coiled snake. The unmaintained site was all happening.

In front of the shoes rack, a modern-looking jogi with a traditional Nepali cap was blessing a visitor by putting color to his forehead while an old lady was literally bent upon hammering the heavy brass bell. Nearby another man was preparing coal-fire for nuptial rituals with families grouped around on the holy floor performing rites as per their traditions and reciting religious mantras. 

Budhanilkantha's 'Famous' Temple
'Ghanta' is an Integral Part of a Hindu Temple
Asheerbad in Nepali Style
A Family Visiting the Temple of Sleeping Vishnu
Wedding Hall inside the Temple
This is not BBQ!
Reciting Holy Verses
Colors All Around
Vegetarian Sacrifices
Another Family Performing Wedding Rituals

Can Anyone Tell What it Means?
Tolerance: Buddhist Monk at Hindu Temple

Today’s Bills – in Nepali Rupees

410 Food Milk, snacks, etc
50 Telephony Calling back home
460 Total for May 15, 2013
5650 Total as of Today
 * Room charges and hotel's food bill will be included in Day 4 at check-out

Traveler's Tip # 7: Finding Authentic Yoga in Nepal
Nepal attracts meditation and yoga lovers from all around the world. Scattered in every nook and corner of the hill country, Hindu ashrams, Buddhist monasteries, and urban yoga studios offer an incredible variety listing a couple of hours of a day practice to full-board weeks long courses. A few of them are free, some accept donations, and several target Western tourists with rip-off USD rates!

Confused with all the options, we SOS Shally, a kind Nepali Couchsurfer, who helped us locating an authentic place. In the meantime, we came across an announcement from Yogi Nomad and found ourselves lucky! While staying at Budhanilkantha, we also heard about Vipassana Meditation Center in good words. Kopan Monastery, an extensive Buddhist center located around Kathmandu, is also famous among tourists.

So if you are thinking of learning this age-old tradition, seek a word from a local friend, or visit travel forums, and stay clear of places demanding money. Imo, it requires patience and a particular aptitude, so in case it is a whirlwind trip, then believe me yoga might not be your cup of tea, as it was not mine!

Monday, August 26, 2013

Yoga and the Cultural Shock in Nepal

This is Day 2 of Nepal Travelogue (May 14, 2013)
Yesterday, we made it to Budhanilkantha, a hilly town around Kathmandu, where we would stay for 4/5 days.

This morning, we woke up from our first slumber in Nepal almost abruptly. It was the long resonating strains from the next-door temple which started banging right in the wee hours. Though it was our second time in a Hindu surrounding, after Bali, but listening to this distinctive and periodic thump was our first experience and kind of a cultural shock.

The cold night was also not so eventless as Misha was missing دادی, grandmother, and Urooba felt a jinn in the room in addition to sighting a lizard! On top of it, the not-helping howls from the nearby jungle were so piercing as if some of the zombies were standing right beneath the window, thankfully on the second floor!

Surprisingly, all this alien feeling would quickly vanish as the sunrays started peeking in from the curtains. And the same Cultural Shock, that ton-tonnn-tonnnnn, sneaked into our routine. Life became the interval between those two tonnnnns and we literally started waiting for the next one!

This temple bell, or ghanta, is an integral part of Nepali culture, which a devotee knocks while entering into the arena to appease Gods and to hush evil spirits away. During the early days of Islam also, it was contemplated to use bell before the prevalent prayer-call, azaan, came into practice. In India, as I heard from my grandparents, any of the two sounds could quickly become a bone of violent contention, unfortunately.

These Heavy Brass Bells Are Omnipresent around Nepal
In Budhanilkantha, the Sound Resonates Longer Due to Surrounding Hills
Budhanilkantha’s Temperature Zone: Min 15° Max 25°C
Even in summers weather was pleasant around Kathmandu and resembles to one in Pakistan's mountainous North. At both places, one could hardly find a ceiling fan. Natural air-conditioning and no hefty bills!

Tough Times: Trekking and Babysitting
The one+ hour trek to the Chandra Ban Eco Resort, where Urooba enrolled for yoga sessions, might be a walk in the park for avid trekkers but frankly speaking it was tough for our lazy Karachiite physique, especially on the first day. The steep slope and the enroute scenery were both breathtaking; one literally and the other figuratively!

Nonetheless, after climbing up, we got the right to comment sarcastically on those coming to yoga by taxi!

For the next three days, Urooba got busy learning new routines handing over the kids duo to me. I guess kids enjoyed Abbu doing babysitting mostly because they got the liberty to dirty their hands around the resort. The resort was purposefully built for nature lovers with fruit orchids around and had an appeal for long-term holidaymakers with deep pockets. 

The Italian owner was a bit rude at us initially when I rushed to the lobby due to sudden and heavy rains. But when, Valarie, the yoga organizer, and her associates offered us their self-catering apartment there for the daytime, he came to good terms and we had a couple of pleasant exchanges.  

The Yoga Trek: from Budhanilkantha We Had to Walk to the Surrounding Hills
Walking Through the Town of Budhanilkantha
Budhanilkantha's Main Bazaar
We Found this Housing Style Popular Around Kathmandu
Misha was Clueless Why Walk So Much
An Aerial View of the Chaotic Kathmandu
Finally We Reached There
Another View of Kathmandu from the Yoga Resort
The Upscale Chandra Ban Eco Resort, Budhanilkantha
Fauna in the Resort
Babysitting: It was My Turn!
Kids also Got Solace from Strict Mamma!
Yoga is a Nepalese Specialty
Coincidence: Meeting Flossie
Before the trip, I received an email from an overland traveler Flossies, who would cross Pakistan during her East-West expedition right from Hong Kong and all the way to London, by road! 

Coincidentally, we met her at the same yoga class! Recently, she crossed-over to Iran from Quetta-Tuftan border, and Flossie if you are reading this please do share your experiences of traveling through the dangerous Pakistan so that reader may benefit from your brave accounts!

Today’s Bills – in Nepali Rupees

Milk, snacks, etc
Total for May 14, 2013

Total as of Today

* Room charges and hotel's food bill will be included in Day 4 at check-out  

Traveler’s Tip # 4: Best Season to Visit Nepal
October onwards, when monsoon finishes washing the Himalayan skyline, is the best period to visit Nepal. Due to the enhanced visibility and conducive weather conditions, trekkers from all around flock to the mountains pushing the prices upwards.

Pre-monsoon, which is before May, is the second best season, which we also chose. This time of the year is great to enjoy the colorful Nepali culture without getting bankrupted; however, clouds will restrict panoramic views. If you choose this part of the year, do watch-out for festivals like Buddha Jayanti.

Traveler’s Tip # 5: Budhanilkantha’s Dairy
For dairy lovers Budhanilkantha gives a reason to visit. Although Pakistan is also rich in dairy but what we tried there was so amazingly refreshing that we could never have had enough of it. In addition to pasturized milk, the shop there was also selling fresh yogurt, homemade varieties of butter and cheese, ghee, and even barfi – the local sweet.

Traveler’s Tip # 6: Danger Dog
In Budhanilkantha, and everywhere in Nepal, we got irked by dogs, both stray and trained, and of all sizes. So beware, and confident, while strolling around and please share a tip or two on how to avoid this nuisance!
Is This Really Just a Dog?

Continue to the travelogue of Day 3  

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Karachi to Kathmandu via Infamous PK-268

This is Day 1 of Nepal Travelogue (May 13, 2013)
Day 11 Day 10 Day 9 Day 8  Day 7  Day 6  Day 5  Day 4  Day 3  Day 2

PK-268: PIA runs Karachi – Kathmandu every Monday at 6:30 am
Politics in the Departure Lounge
In the departure lounge, there was a discussion going on about Pakistan Elections, which were held just a couple of days back. An Imran Khan fan was unhappy about rigging at Karachi’s NA-250. Later on in Nepal also, people were aware about the political change in Pakistan and kept asking us about the return of Nawaz Sharif!

Before that, I checked airport’s currency exchange counters for Nepali Rupees, only to find rip-off rates so postponed the ‘transaction’ until we would reach the destination.

Gorgeously Deadly: Landing at Kathmandu Airport
Soon, at ~10am Nepal time, the plane was steadily landing at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International, one of the world’s deadliest airports. As if it was not enough that we were aboard the same flight # PK-268 which crashed at the same venue back in 1992 I spotted an unfortunate plane along the runway! At the same time, the lush green surrounding was reassuring that this crazy airport is indeed a gateway to the paradise!

Facilities-wise, we found the airport very basic with causal looking staff. We also checked the medical room but for no use. Currency counter was also half open and almost a rip-off so we exchanged only a petty amount and rushed outside to negotiate with taxis in the parking lot.

On a positive side, there is a silver lining amid all the immigration hassle: Nepal gives Pakistani travelers visa-on-arrival and that too free of cost! So my fellow countrymen don’t let this opportunity go wasted! Just ready your passport and buy a ticket, and you are good to go!
Surrounding Hills of Kathmandu Airport
It was like flying from flat Karachi and then landing directly on Nathiagali hills!
Alhamdolillah we Landed Eventlessly
Carcasses of an Unfortunate Aircraft
PK-268: the Same Flight Which Crashed Here Back in 1992!
The Flight to Kathmandu was an Experience in its Own

Green Inside of the Kathmandu's Tribhuvan Aiport

Ditching Thamel and the First Surprise
Almost everybody in Nepal could understand and speak Urdu which was a welcome surprise for us especially when we were in the improvisation mood.

That encouraged us ditching the inevitable Thamel – a touristy and chaotic Kathmandu district where every incoming tourist is supposed to go first mostly to arrange onward travels. Breaking this ritual, we instead dared heading directly to our first dugout, Budhanilkantha, where Urooba had to attend yoga sessions in the coming days. 

Surrounded by green hills, we found this neighborhood a nicer place with an authentic local ambiance and yummy street food: Samosay, Jalaibi, Paani Poori, and even Halwa-Poori! On the flipside, tourist accommodation was not abundant, however, with the help of friendly locals, we explored an inexpensive clean room at a family run restaurant-cum-guesthouse: Budhanilkantha Family Kitchen, aka BFK, near the happening Temple of Sleeping Vishnu (NPR 600 per night for the double room)!

After settling down, I strolled around town for errands and luckily found a good dairy for kids supplies! 

Bird's-Eye-View: Kathmandu Valley is Visible from Budhanilkantha
Budhanilkantha Family Kitchen, aka BFK: Stayed Here for 4-5 Days
BFK: Small But Full of Character and Great Food
A View from the Rooftop Restaurant
Another View of Budhanilkantha
The Expert Chef Duo: Ganesh and Urqen Sherpa
And an Evidence of their Dexterity
Hungry Us!

Today's Bills - in Nepali Rupees

Taxi to Karachi Airport + Tip
Luggage Wrap
Pakistani gifts for friends in Nepal
Taxi - KTM Airport to Budhanilkantha
Hotel Room Charges - Advance
Samosay, Jalaibee, etc!
Milk, bread, snakcs, etc
Fruits: 1 dozen Banana!
Calling back home
Total for May 13, 2013

Traveler’s Tip # 1: Currency Exchange
Buying local currency is very easy in Nepal and on good rates, though there are few reports of rip-offs also. Exchange shops are rampant around Kathmandu, however, I preferred banks except for the first time, because they offer reasonable rates, are more reliable, and then you also get a legitimate receipt which will be useful, for the reverse transaction, at the end of the trip. Do take your passport as they need to make a photocopy of some pages.

Taking a major currency, like USD, Euro, etc is advisable but the Indian currency, INR, especially the smaller denominations, are widely accepted – to the extent that some shopkeepers quoted us INR thinking that we might be from India!

ATMs are also common around the urban localities but bringing cash will save from bank commission, either charged directly or incorporated in the exchange rate.

There is no need to change all the currency in one go but do take enough if you are going for excursion, e.g. around Chitwan National Park or the Everest Area.

In May, we got ~87 NPR for 1 USD while now (August 2013) one can get ~100!

Traveler's Tip # 2: Mobile SIM
Buying a local mobile SIM is also very easy in Nepal and highly recommend. Again, take your passport in addition to a photograph to any of the mobile shops around to buy an inexpensive pre-paid package which can be recharged easily as per the need. Local SIM is handy for contacting hotels, taxis, and even for calling abroad. It took the SIM 5-6 hours to get activated so we used a nearby PCO for calling back home.

For data, we used handy Wifi at hotels and restaurants, included in the cost.

Passport and Photograph are Required to Buy a Nepali Mobile SIM
Traveler's Tip # 3: PIA Awards
For PIA Frequent Flyers, Karachi-Kathmandu return ticket is a great value for 20,000 miles only - translating into a decent saving of ~Rs. 20,000!