As I was flying from Chengdu, China to Kathmandu, Nepal – over the most spectacular vistas you will ever see from the window of a plane (8 of the 10 highest peaks in the world are in Nepal and they’re on glorious display), you might have thought I would be in a paroxysm of delight. And I was … sort of.
The only Tibetan I met.
But I was also plenty cranky because we were flying over Tibet – where I was supposed to be going for three spectacular days, if my visa had not been rejected by the Chinese government. Yes, after I’d spend $200 to assure that my passport, Chinese visa, 30-day in advance Tibet visa application, confirmed flights, carefully crafted bio (in which I assiduously tried to avoid using the word “writer”) and thorough retinue of places I wished to travel was in order, China flipped me the bird.
Now, the fact that you even need a separate visa to go to Tibet, which China is obsessive about referring to as its own territory, adds salt to the wound of having to pay $500+ for a stupid Chinese visa … it’s like paying an arm and a leg for a USA visa, then having to pay extra to visit Montana (which would be totally worth it, btw). In any case, I was bitter about my aborted visit to Tibet when I could SEE IT from the plane… in fact, we landed in Lhasa and spent an hour in its militaristic little terminal.
The Lhasa Airport (all I saw of Tibet)
To make my bitterness even more acute, my adjusted plans to visit additional Heifer projects in Nepal (after my last-minute rejection in Tibet) were jettisoned by threatened Maoist strikes throughout that country. So yeah, I was experiencing a little Global PMS (Post-Maoist Sh#$%t).
But then I got to Kathmandu and the sheer, delightful energy of the place blew my crankiness straight away.
This dusty, frenetic city of 1 million people is wall-to-wall shopping, drinking, eating, building, bargains, music, stupas, shrines, westernized food, trekkers, scarily fit Europeans, aging hippies, buskers, players, monks and prayer wheels.
The eyes of the Buddha are upon you.
Nepal was a surprise to me on many levels – probably because I assumed I knew quite a bit about the country (so many people I know have been there) but in truth, I was clueless.
I thought Nepal was mostly Buddhist; it’s actually 90% Hindu, with an ingrained caste system that is rigid and unforgiving, particularly for women.
I also thought Nepal was a monarchy; but the King and his family were assassinated in 2001, and a Maoist revolution succeeded in 2006 (hence the strikes that truncated my project visits). This small landlocked country, sandwiched between the titans of India and China, is the only Asian nation never to be colonized and knows well how to walk the delicate line between diplomacy and independence.
Nepal’s 3 regions: Terai lowlands, Hill Country & Mountains — and what mountains!
Not to sound too tourist guide-y, but Nepal is a land of contrasts, from the rice paddies of Chitwan to the nosebleed peaks of Annapurna and Everest– and a country of constant surprises.
The swastika is a Hindu symbol for prosperity, and the Star of David stands for knowledge – but what a juxtaposition to see on a home’s entrance gate!
I knew Nepal’s 26 million people were poor, but I didn’t realize that 40% of children under five are underweight and likely to be stunted in growth.
And I didn’t realize there would be so many adorable things to buy, but for once I’d have no appetite for shopping.
I was happy to be in Nepal, and a bit sad to be alone in my sweet room at Kathmandu Guest House.But mostly, I just needed to go see some Heifer projects and people… the cure for all crankiness.
(But that’s tomorrow’s story.)