Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Gorkha - Land of Fearsome Warriors

"Better to die than be a coward" - the motto of the world famous Gorkha soldiers.

The place from where the Kingdom of Nepal was expanded by Prithvi Narayan Shah, has a history of courage, bravery, unquestionable loyalty and impressive combat skills. It was Prithvi Narayan Shah who foresaw the Britishers plan to colonize Nepal. After unification of Nepal, with the might of Gorkha warriors, Nepal succeeded in fighting British forces and prevented colonization of Nepal. No wonder the Nepali army is also known as the Gorkha Army as they are the direct descendants of the mythological Kirant tribes who fought and defeated legendary warrior Arjuna in Mahabharata.

This historical place was our destination from Dhulikhel and the ride of 160 km on Prithvi Highway was absolute bliss. River Trishuli never lets the rider off her sight, as she flows parallel to the highway making it one of the most stunning and scenic highways. A fantasy road for every biker as the smooth winding mountain roads unfold dramatic landscapes. Once you reach Abu Khaireni, take a detour and 24 km of curvaceous and uphill roads lead you to the historic town of Gorkha.

We expected heavy traffic on Prithvi Highway as it connects Kathmandu to Pokhara but were pleasantly surprised to find the entire highway pretty much to ourselves. Passing through the villages on the way, we realized that it was the last day of Tihar festival and we saw everyone celebrating Bhai Tika, a festival where sisters apply tika on their brothers' forehead and pray for their long life, health and prosperity.

On reaching Gorkha, we were taken aback by the sight of thunder showers, lightning & wind speed of 80 to 100 km per hour, all this during the month of October. A stark contrast to spectacular view of the sun setting behind mountain peaks a few hours earlier during the day. The thunders faded away early in the morning and our eyes welcomed another surprise - the Gorkha valley being painted milky white by the clouds.

The prime attractions are the Gorkha Durbar Palace and the Kali temple within the same complex, the Gorkha museum & Manakamana Temple.

We rode to Gorkha Darbar & Kali temple perched high up on the mountain. This could be reached either by foot or by road. Be warned, if you choose foot you will have to climb 1700 stone cut steps. We choose the easier option and hit the road and boy! it was quite a treat. The view of the snow clad Himalayan peaks en-route are simply superb.  Gorkha, in terms of stellar views, easily surpasses Kathmandu or Dhulikhel. We highly recommend you visit this town. The Palace complex houses the Durbar and Kali temple. The palace has 35 rooms, 105 windows, 62 doors and 5 halls. The Nepali army is stationed here.

On the way to Durbar palace while on one side you are treated with views of the Himalayas , on the other side you are greeted with man's sarcastic answer to nature's beauty- pile of plastic bottles. It is really sad to see how we are slowly ensuring that our future generations do not enjoy even a little bit of Nature's beauty by polluting it to the maximum level possible.

On the way back from Durbar Palace, make sure you stop over at the Gorkha Museum. The museum exhibits the lifestyle, weapons, portraits, utensils of the Shah dynasty. Above all it has intricate and exquisite carved wooden doors, windows & pillars. The red stone structure and the whole complex stands as an unquestionable example of the other side of fearful warriors - their craftsmanship.

The museum attracts hardly any visitors but we were very happy to see 2 kids around 7-8 years old who were waiting patiently for the ticket counter to open. They just had the exact amount of money required for the entry ticket and with the enthusiasm of learning more about their culture, heritage these kids went about admiring everything that was there in the museum and were in awe with all the artifacts. We were very proud to have seen these kids.

If you are a lover of collectibles or looking for a souvenir it would be a good idea to pick up a "Khukuri,"- the traditional weapon used by Gorkha soldiers. In earlier times, it was believed that Khukuri had to taste blood every time it was drawn on the battlefield, if not the owner had to cut himself before placing it back in it's sheath. It is considered a taboo to drawn the weapon out of it's sheath for no reason.

Manakamana Temple- 35 km from Gorkha towards Kathmandu is the famous Manakamana temple. The term Manakamana is drevied from two words "mana" meaning heart and "kamana" meaning wish. Situated atop a hill, this temple can be reached  via trekking an unpaved road for four hours or by cable car. We choose cable car which offers a thrilling experience as it climbs the 1300 meter hill at a steep 80 degree angle and reaches the top in a couple of minutes though the wait in the queue for the ride takes a lot of time. In the end, it was completely worth it as the cable car offers breathtaking views of  the Trishuli river, Prithivi highway and the valleys around.

Once you reach the other side there is utter chaos and we were taken aback to see so many restaurants and hotels offering free wifi, satellite TV for quite an isolated destination.  The temple itself is in a sorry state as the foundation has decayed,  the structure has weakened due to earthquakes in the past and the wooden planks are infested with termites.

This temple is famous for wrong reasons though. We were shocked to hear that this temple attracts lots of devotees who pray for a male child. Also, animal sacrifice is a part of Goddess worship in Nepal and this temple sees most of the devotees offering animals for sacrifice.

We checked into Hotel Gorkha Bisauni. This budget hotel is the best in Gorkha with prime location, inexpensive tariff, basic rooms, fantastic views, 24 hr running hot water, exclusive parking, wifi, friendly staff and great service. The hotel offers rooms with attached and common bath.

The hotel balcony can definitely bring out the artist in you. With the various colors in the sky at dawn and dusk, it serves as the perfect place to bring out the paint brush and fill in your canvas with the most vibrant colors that nature has to offer.

If you wish to stay closer to the Palace, we stumbled upon Hotel Brindaban on the way to Kali temple, this hotel offers fantastic views of the Himalayan peaks and is secluded away from the town. However, we were unable to check it out as it was closed during Diwali.

A word of caution- If you are travelling to Nepal during the Tihar festival plan your trip well as the hotels are closed and they wont take in guests during that time. Also make sure you have some packaged food as the restaurants and even kirana stores tend to be closed leaving with no option to purchase food items as well.

Next Stop Pokhara

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Dhulikhel- Perfect getaway from Kathmandu.

Far from the chaos of Kathmandu and very close to the stunning panoramic views of high mountains lies Dhulikhel. Hardly 25 km from Kathmandu, one gets to experience and enjoy quiet, calm, peaceful & a serene town.

Apart from spectacular views, the tranquility is what makes you fall in love with this place almost immediately. A perfect place to relax and welcome the festival of lights- Deepavali or Tihar (in Nepal.) We pretty much felt at home celebrating Deepavali here in Dhulikhel. Everyone was in festive mood, decorating their homes with flowers, lights and preparing yummy delicacies. This experience taught us more about the Tihar festival and their culture- they not only worship Goddess Lakshmi but also worship crows, cows and dogs. Also, it is only during this time of the entire year that they play Bhailini songs. Group of girls sing Bhailo door to door giving blessings to the family in exchange for money or homemade treats.

It was such a wonderful sight to see the whole town gather together and celebrate Tihar/Diwali with live music and dance and surprisingly with not much of fire crackers. The atmosphere can be easily mistaken for a live concert band.

We recommend Dhulikhel over Nagarkot, Dhulikhel not only offers stunning views of Himalaya ranges but also many other spectacular attractions such as Nammo Buddha, Shanti Ban, Kali temple and Shiva temple.

Nammo Buddha: Legend has it that Buddha in his previous form as a Prince fed his own arm to a hungry Tigress. A Gompa stands here today dedicated to this selfless act. This is one of the holiest places for Buddhists in Nepal. Right behind the Gompa is the Thrangu Tashi Yangtse monastery.

Thrangu Tashi Yangtse monastery is breathtaking and the views from here are very dramatic. There are multiple options to reach the monastery and Gompa, the most challenging one is to trek up which takes 5 hours and its not an easy trek. The most comfortable way to reach is to hire a taxi. The most economical way is to board one of the many buses that ply between Dhulikhel and Nammo Buddha. It takes any where between one to one and half hour to reach Nammo Buddha.

Shanti Ban & Kali temple : One can club both these attractions as they are hardly 10 mins away from each other by foot. Shanti Ban has a huge golden statue of Buddha over looking Dhulihkel. It is a very peaceful location and the doors to this place are open between 7 am to 4 pm. However, the caretaker of this place, a generous man, was very kind to let us in even though we reached a few minutes past 4 pm. A small temple dedicated to goddess Kali sits at the top of the hill. The views from here are stellar and if you want better views, climb the watch tower. This place can be reached either by foot or road. We tried both and despite the roads being very poor, road is the better option as climbing the stairs all the way up can be very tiring and exhausting.

Shiva Temple: One cannot miss the massive Shiva statue over looking the valley. This massive statue towering 143 feet is the world's biggest Shiva statue and grabs your attention even before you could reach Dhulikhel. The construction of this statue took almost 7 years.

We checked into Mirabel Hotel & Resorts and though this place comes highly recommended, there are several other better properties to stay in Dhulikhel. The rooms were over priced & their best room that comes at a premium price for the views do not offer great views. There is no 24 hours running hot water & even during the specified hours we did not get hot water. Pro: The service and food at the restaurant is phenomenally good. The views from hotel terrace, restaurant and gardens were breathtaking.

We highly recommend Dhulikhel Village Resort for stay, their garden & rooms offer fantastic views and are very nominally priced. This resort is a little in the interior making it even more peaceful and calm and just a few mins away from the foothills of Shanti Ban. Please note that this hotel too does not offer 24 hours running hot water.

While you are in Dhulikhel, at any cost do not miss this tiny restaurant called 'Ganapathi Cafe.' This place is on the way to Shanti Ban just as you exit the main road and head towards the market. Their service is exceptionally good, very nominally priced food above all lip smacking. Their fried momos are to die for, the other items to check out are egg fried rice, chicken fry and their different varieties of chutney, It also serves alcohol. The people here make you feel at home.

Next Stop Gorkha

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Kathmandu City Of Heritage

We left the terai region behind us and headed to the high altitude mountain passes, destination - capital city of Nepal- Kathmandu. With all awe and excitement we started riding on ghat roads, maneuvering around hair pin bends, curvy mountain roads and steep slopes. The sheer joy of riding through clouds with near zero visibility and finger numbing temperature plus our bullets thump tearing through the thin mountain air made us cherish the moment.

Our eyes were treated to snow clad peaks, colorful flowers and ears to the soothing sound of a flowing river. As we were admiring God's charm on planet Earth, we stumbled upon a huge man-made suspension bridge connecting two hills across a river. We walked over to the other side of the hill and man!- it was a breath taking experience. This is the best part about being on road - you can stop where ever you want and check out interesting places. On the other side of the river, we treated ourselves with a piping hot cup of chai. The friendly locals bearing a smile on their face and children waving at us made our day.

Kathmandu being a tourist hub and home for the International airport, attracts hordes of people from all over the globe making the city very chaotic and the most over crowded place in the whole of Nepal that we have seen. On reaching we realized that the hype around Kathmandu's traffic turned out to be true. Traffic jams, bad roads and pollution masks are a way of living here. Taxis are the best mode of transportation here, but be prepared to cough out exorbitant amount of money. Irrespective of the distance, the fare they seem to ask is unfair. Taxis do not ply by meter or any set tariff. Feel free to bargain heavily before boarding.

This historic town has quite a few interesting places that are a must visit, like Pashupatinath, Boudhanath, Swayambhunath, Durbar Square etc.

Pashupatinath Temple: This UNESCO world heritage site, right in the heart of the city, on the banks of Bagmati river is dedicated to Lord Shiva. Make sure you are there for the evening Aarti that is performed at 6 pm. This elaborate Aarti is performed by three priests of the temple. Again, like Janakpur, they are completely in sync. The rituals, the offerings and the bhajans are so soothing and bring peace to the mind and soul. While on one side of the river bank, people gather together and sing along with the priest to please the gods and play for a prosperous life, on the other side of the bank, the mood is very mournful as you see people performing the last rites for their near and dear ones.

Boudhanath Temple: This is one of the most popular shrines in Kathmandu dedicated to Lord Shiva. This Stupa of Enlightenment is known as the mind nature of Buddhas of the three times- past, present and future. Here, you see the eyes on the Stupa which are a symbol of Method and Wisdom watching over in all directions. This could be one of the many best places in Kathmandu to get your perfect picture. The Buddhist schools around add more charm to the place. It is believed that people residing around this Stupa will never suffer from hunger, famine or any other unfavorable conditions. It is also widely known as "The Stupa That Answers All Prayers." This would also serve as a great place for souvenir hunting from any of the numerous shops around.

Swayambhunath Temple: Be prepared to test your stamina as you are greeted by a fleet of steep 365 steps to reach the temple. It is tiring, exciting and at the same time fun to sweat out and reach the top. As a reward, there are plenty of photo ops on the way to the temple. However, there is an alternative and less tiring route where taxis will circle around and drop you only mere meters away from the temple. From this point, you climb only a few steps and reach the shrine.

Not just Swayambhunath, the huge temple complex has many a small temples dedicated to different Gods in the Hindu mythology. This temple is also known as the Monkey Temple as there are too many of them living in the vicinity. The highlight is the small monastery within the complex where one can see monks perform their daily rituals. It was heartening to see the monks play different dharma musical instruments to create a state of mind for inviting or summoning the deities.

Also, hidden in one corner of the complex is a huge 7th Century Monolithic statue of Dipanker Buddha.

Durbar Square is where you go to treat your taste buds with the street food of Kathmandu. Alongside catching a glimpse of another World Heritage Site, the fried chicken momos and masala chai are a must try.

Gambling is legal in Nepal and Kathmandu has a few famous casinos. We tried our luck at the Casino Royale. This casino has slot machines, blackjack, poker and roulette tables plus a dance bar to entertain the guests. The staff was very friendly and helpful. This being our first experience in a casino, the staff answered all our silly doubts with a smile on their face.

We checked into Hotel Encounter in Thamel, this property is in the heart of  Kathmandu and in a bustling shopping bazaar. All must visit places are not very far. They have decent parking, good service, complimentary breakfast and a good restaurant. The rooms are comfortable with 24 hours running hot water . The corner rooms offer brilliant views. Since the place is in the heart of the city, getting in and out can be a little time consuming.

Keeping Kathmandu as your base you can do quite a few day trips and if you prefer stay a couple of nights at Dhulikhel, Gorkha, Pokhara, Chitwan, Bandipur & Bhaktapur.