The valley below is filled with rolling banks of morning mist. They cloak the shadowy hills that float into the hazy distance – the foothills of the Himalayas.
Beyond those great mountains, their jagged summits still softened by the clouds and gusting snow that hang in the pre-dawn air, the sky is the colour of burnt orange and the morning sun prepares to rise over the rooftop of the world.
The setting of the sun had pitched the valley into darkness, a legacy of Nepal’s chronic power shortages and rolling blackouts that have been known to last up to 16 hours. The blanket of black was pinpricked only by the occasional independent power source.
Aside from the wind, it was silent. It had grown quieter as we climbed up the winding roads on the southern side of Kathmandu Valley. The dust and construction of Kathmandu itself had been left far below and the only sound was the sudden fleeting hum of a descending motorbike or the regular warning blare of the driver’s horn as we rounded yet another switchback turn.
Lorries passed us on the road up, their dust- and dirt-smeared sides adorned with hand-painted images of kuris, the traditional curved fighting knives of the gurkhas, alongside Buddhist icons, dragons, flowers, the elephant-headed Ganesha and other blue-skinned denizens of the Hindu pantheon. There were more prosaic symbols, too: Nike swooshes, footballs, and – bizarrely – the British union flag.
Now, as morning breaks over the mountains, that is all forgotten. The rising sun burns away the remaining clouds still cobwebbed between the peaks. The Himalayas rear against the blue sky, towering over where I stand atop Nagarkot. I’m at an elevation high enough to be considered a mountain itself in most countries, but am dwarfed by these towering giants that are almost too big to be believed. A muse to generations of poets and adventurers alike, the Himalayas are impressively grand, enduring and remote.
Down from the mountains, Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital and principal city, is an overcrowded sprawl of narrow, dusty roads and alleys, interspersed with instances of startlingly intricate and beautiful Hindu architecture. Shrines and pagodas alike are monuments to the cultural and political renaissance that once flourished in Kathmandu, but their crumbling grandeur is also a stark illustration of the capital’s subsequent decline.
Nepal is desperately poor. Yet everywhere people are building for the future. Every part of the city appears to be undergoing construction; monochromatic buildings rise out of cheap building materials. Sandwiched between two superpowers, Nepal is flooded with Chinese imports and steeped in Indian culture.
Schools flourish, too, especially for those for the very young. The six-pointed star better known in the west as the Star of David, but a symbol of education in both Hinduism and Buddhism, is regularly seen on the gates and façades of places of learning. Such is the importance placed on education and learning, that its patron goddess, the Hindu deity Saraswati Mata, is commemorated on the fifth day of the lunar calendar in a citywide festival. Worshippers proceed through the old town of Patan in a stream of bright yellow clothing, discordant gongs and the high-pitched shrilling of wind instruments.
At the heart of Patan lies Durbar Square: the place of palaces, and a curious mixture of Chinese and Indian architectural styles. Beneath the curved gables of pagodas are detailed scenes from Hindu mythology carved into door and window frames, while elephants stand sentry before fluted pillars that bear massive domed structures, a physical testament to the power of the Himalayan kingdom that once fought the might of the British Empire to a standstill.
Across the city from Durbar Square is the massive Boudhanath Stupa, one of Buddhism’s holiest sites. The Nepalese are predominately Hindu, but Buddhism and Buddha himself were born here, and it is the religion of the country’s largest minority. Devotees walk clockwise around the great gold dome, the painted eyes atop the structure looking down at a crowded mass of red-clothed monks, penitent pilgrims and tourists alike.
There is a sense of loneliness around Katmandu’s other great structure, the former Royal Palace. The last dynasty of Nepal, the despotic and anachronistic Shahs, reached their nadir in June 2001, when Crown Prince Dipendra gunned down both his parents and much of his family in the throne room then attempted to take his own life and was himself crowned king while lying in a fatal coma. Now, in the new republic, half a dozen bored soldiers stand sentry by the palace-turned-museum, where once over 3,000 guarded the former god-kings of Nepal.
A country where sacred icons and symbols are displayed everywhere, and where the tenets of two of the world’s great religions were formed, has also seen a long and, at times, bloody Maoist conflict. Nepal is still struggling to come to terms with the decade-long insurgency that decimated the tourist trade. The streets of the cities remain narrow and dirty: a general strike called by the Maoist opposition left rubbish festering for days on end, to the detriment of the very people in whose name the party fought.
Yet the towns and villages are filled with warm, friendly people, happy to see tourists and the income they provide. Away from the grey urban areas, the countryside is breathtaking. The air is bracing, and mountains rise in every direction; rivers stream through gorges and valleys in torrents of blue and white. A hawk or kite hangs motionless above, its wings as silent as the quiet that surrounds the foothills of the top of the world.
Hyatt Regency Kathmandu
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Jet Airways currently operates daily flights from Singapore to Mumbai and then from Mumbai to Katmandu. See www.jetairways.com for more details. Other airlines also fly direct to Kathmandu.