You could say Nepal was my first country. It wasn’t, but it feels that way. Certainly, it was the first place I travelled solo for a long period of time. It was the first place I felt loneliness, happiness and joy to be on the road alone. It was the place I had dreamed about forever, and finally I came to climb my namesake mountain, to meditate and to travel through the valleys of Kathmandu, and to learn about the people who inhabit the foothills of the Himalayas.
Two and a half years later, I return. A lot has happened in that time. I am now an experienced solo backpacker and semi-professional photographer. I have replaced the fear I once carried with a camera lens and the confidence that I know how to navigate a third world country alone. A lot has changed in Nepal too. A series of earthquakes struck the country in April 2015, killing thousands and destroying homes and roads around the Kathmandu Valley and in the mountains. The country has been on every TV screen and every news site, yet tourism to Nepal has diminished rapidly and it’s obvious from the moment I arrive. I had just spent four months in India, and had a mere two weeks to get from Varanasi to Kathmandu for my flight back to Europe. I had no time to trek as I had before, but I wanted to see the changes in the country, and in some ways I was curious to see the changes in myself. How different this trip would be from the last.
The border is a nightmare. Four months in India and my worst experience is leaving it. Trucks lined up miles and miles back, mostly Nepali vehicles trying to get fuel from India. Political problems between the two countries meant that India cut off fuel supplies to Nepal, causing mass chaos in a country on the brinks of collapse from a succession of natural disasters and long-standing poverty.
The Indian immigration office is a roadside shack fronted by plain clothed men grabbing every tourist walking by into the office. I refuse to believe it’s the real deal and don’t hand over my passport until a tour guide with fifty Chinese passports hands over a bulk of the red coated books. I am stamped and officially allowed to leave the country. Finally I walk through the white arch, and see the slanted eyes of Nepal gazing at me, ‘you have arrived in peace’ they seem to mutter.
Indeed the Nepali side of the border is surprisingly quieter and better organised. The Visa office is plastered wall-to-wall with sunrise shots of Everest, Annapurna and the rainbow stupas of Bouda. I hand over my passport, ‘First time in Nepal?’ the smiling man says to me. ‘No, second’, I respond. The conversation is then proceeded by the whole of the Visa office staff being amazed that a white, blonde girl is actually called Annapurna. I am let in, home again in the Himalayan kingdom.
After a long and winding bus ride I reach the birthplace of Siddartha, Lord Buddha. Lumbini is a ghost town. The main street of hotels is empty and silent, only one restaurant is open for business and many of the hotels are empty. I stay at Lonely Planet’s top choice, where a room costs me $2 a night. There’s no hot water but a few other backpackers are around, mostly relishing in the quietness of the town. I find it eerie and unpleasant. I cycle around the giant Chinese monastery in search of Tibetan temples hidden down dirt roads and behind trees. Each seems to be closed, but in fact they are just surprised at the presence of a tourist. I find the main prayer hall and sit under a photograph of the Dalai Lama.
The next day I take a bus to Pokhara. The roads are a colossal mess, but they always were. The views are even more spectacular than I remember. Pokhara is the gateway to the Himalayas, and the starting point for many treks into the Himalayas. As I did three years before, I arrive at Butterfly Lodge to my smiling friend Ganga, possibly the happiest man in Nepal. It feels good to be back here, and I relax comfortably into my simple room for the night. Sunrise is misty blue with panoramic mountain views of Phewa Lake. If there was any city in the world which feels like a little slice of heaven, Pokhara is it.
Lakeside is quiet and I sit everyday in the German bakery eating Yak cheese sandwiches and drinking big cups of masala chai. I solo hike to the Namobuddha stupa and on another day to Sarangkhot where I spend the night and watch sunrise over Annapurna South and Machhapuchre. Seeing that view made me desperate to get back into the mountains, and to one day hike the longer Annapurna Circuit trek. The white tips are soaked in sunlight, the valleys in rising mist and the viewpoint slowly fills up with tour groups. I begin the trek back to Pokhara, a continuous down-hill passing morning paragliders, yellow Rapeseed fields and small farming villages. The area around Pokhara was left surprisingly untouched by the earthquake, although avalanches on the Annapurna trek left many stranded. It’s easy to forget the power of the mountains, great beasts of absolute beauty with the ability to utterly destroy this tiny landlocked country with a simple shudder.
It is not until I arrive in the Kathmandu valley that I see the full extent of those shudders. Here, thousands were killed and lost their homes. Even almost a year on, many are still living in tents arranged in makeshift shanti towns next to the Pashupatinath Temple or in central Kathmandu. The eyes of Bouda no longer stare down at the thousands of Tibetan pilgrims circling the stupa, instead replaced by scaffolding. The spirit is still alive though, as it is in the piles of brick in Durbur square or around the buildings being propped up by wooden poles in the old city. Destroyed buildings have become playgrounds for young children who play hide and seek around piles of rubble. It is clear that in the city, life just goes on. It has to.
I have only a few days in Kathmandu, and I stay at the same Himalayan Yoga Hotel I did years before. I love its monastery feel, the red doors covered with Tibetan door curtains and the power supplied by solar panels on the roof. Each day brings big bowls of Thukpa and plates of daal baat. I take it slow, savouring my last few days in Asia. I spend a whole day drinking tea over the views from Swayambhunath, reading the last pages of my book, and as the sun sets over the city, photographing novice monks rotate around the golden prayer wheels.
When I arrived in Nepal years before, the first thing I did was spend 10 days in Kopan Monastery on one of their Introduction to Buddhism and Meditation courses. Kopan lies on a hilltop a short walk away from Boudhanath. It is one of the biggest Tibetan monasteries in Nepal, and was one of the first to offer courses to Westerners. It was one of the greatest experiences of my travels, a place where I begun to figure out a lot of the chaos in my head and a place where I was first introduced to the situation in Tibet, something I have grown to be passionate about. The monastery unfortunately suffered a lot of earthquake damage, yet the views from the Gompa are still breathtaking. I remembered waking up at 6am each morning, seeing the tips of the Himalayas peaking from the lush green rice paddies all around, and eating big bowls of rice porridge in silence above one of the most breathtaking views in the world.
It seemed all the magic of Nepal existed in moments like that one, simple silence and the slow awakening of mother earth from her greatest mountains.
The next day I am at Kathmandu airport, ready to board a flight to Manchester and feeling happy to be heading home. As we fly out, the sky is pink, burning in golden flames and I glimpse Everest from the window of an airplane. I leave the magic of Nepal in that cotton candy sky, and in the magic of each peak of that Himalayan sunset. Despite the destruction of the last year, the magic, perseverance and beauty of Nepal still reigns in all its glory.