Category Archives: Nepal

Much ado about Kathmandu

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The charm of Nepal’s ancient temples and squares, lively streets and mountain magic cannot be smothered by any calamity discovers PRIYA GANAPATHY

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‘We are in the year 2074,’ my guide Bir intoned solemnly in what sounded like the opening line of a futuristic sci-fi saga. Given its seamless blend of tradition and modernity, one does feel like a time-traveller in Nepal, but I discovered that the country has its own calendar – the Bikram Sambat Nepali Patro – and an unhurried sense of time!

Nepal has attracted mountaineers and hippies since the 60s, but a lot had happened since my last visit 12 years ago in the middle of bird flu and a palace coup! The month-long trip was a screaming rollercoaster of landslides, bungee jumps, canyoning, rafting and paragliding besides sedate explorations of Kathmandu, Pokhara, Chitwan and Lumbini. This time, I had a more enriching purpose.

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In 2015, I had helplessly watched Nepal receive a body blow from a devastating earthquake. So when Marriott Hotels decided to celebrate their 30th Anniversary by inviting guests from across the world to participate in a home build project, I jumped in. Partnering with Habitat For Humanity, we were to build one of 12 homes for needy families around the globe. Kavre, a region near Kathmandu badly affected by the earthquake would be our worksite for a Nepalese family that had lost their home.

The 40km bus ride to Kavre passed through scenic Nagarkot and the 143ft tall copper statue of Kailashnath Mahadev, built by a Jain businessman from India on the Sanga Hills that divide Bhaktapur and Kavre. This was the traditional village of oil-producers – sang is Newari for mustard oil and ga means village. We drove past rice terraces and the quaint town of Banepa, an old trading outpost between Tibet and Nepal. Everywhere mud and stone homes bore scars of the quake.

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At Kavre, we grabbed gloves, donned hard hats and picked our tools to dig foundation trenches and clear boulders. After completing our ‘Rally to Serve’ project, we visited Habitat for Humanity’s model town in Pipaltar village, where volunteers had helped rebuild 87 houses. Three years on, as the country hobbles back to its feet with rebuilding and restoration projects, tourists are streaming in again, smitten by its irresistible charm.

On our return we stopped at the plush Dwarika’s Resort in Dhulikel for a traditional Newari meal. Tasteful decorated with Nepali artifacts, the emphasis is on holistic living and healthy food using ingredients sourced from their organic farm. Their Himalayan Salt Room ensconces you in a pink cocoon of healing salt while the Chakra sound therapy chamber stimulates the body’s seven chakras. We sipped local beer and dined outdoors, savouring the view of majestic Himalayan peaks.

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Thamel Trail & Durbar Squares
On the surface, Kathmandu seemed the same – crowded and dusty with the familiar charm of brick houses, smiling faces and walls splashed with colourful graffiti. After champagne and high tea marking the launch of Fairfield by Marriott – the first Marriott hotel in Nepal – we took an evening rickshaw ride around the tourist-friendly hub of Thamel. We rolled down Tridevi Marg towards the winding maze of festooned alleys selling an assortment of exotic art and crafts. The streets were lined with bars, pubs, tour agencies and adventure equipment stores.

We learnt that Dharma Kirti Vihar, located behind Swayambhunath stupa was the school where Myanmar’s icon of democracy Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi studied Buddhism and taught English four decades ago. Sambhu, our charioteer stopped by an unusual tree stump covered with coins at a street corner. “That’s Vaisha Dev, the ‘dentist god’. Nepalese people hammer a coin into the idol to solve their dental problems!”

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Hopping off at Basantapur Durbar Square, we set off on a twilight heritage walk with Bir, our guide. The carved spires of temples were silhouetted against an indigo sky. The brackets depicted gods and goddesses as locals believed only they had the power to hold the weight of the massive conical roofs. Swinging between memories and the moment, I tried to fix the missing pieces. One of the oldest structures, Kasthamandap, the wooden architectural wonder that gave Kathmandu its name was completely razed.

Further away, the beautiful carved stone Garuda stared at the vacant space where the multi-tiered 1680 Trailokya Mohan temple should have stood. The Krishna Temple was another gaping spot. The ornate beauty was marred by dense scaffolding, which enveloped the monuments in a skeletal hug. One wasn’t sure how or where to begin healing the city.

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The tall fierce image of Kala Bhairava glowered in lamplight as people bowed their heads in reverence to the God of Time, offering flowers, incense and butter lamps. The temple of Thulja Bhavani, closed throughout the year, is opened to public only on the eighth day of Vijayadashami. We noticed that the structures showed British influences. Bir pointed out a stone inscription in various languages including French; apparently King Pratap Malla who ruled in the 1700s was a polyglot!

The Jaganath temple, famous for its erotic art had been sadly defaced. With Buddhism emerging as the main religion in the 17th century, several people had adopted a monastic life of celibacy and the population in Nepal had dropped drastically. These amorous carvings were created to encourage people to marry and have children! It is also believed that it would prevent Kumari, the incarnation of the Virgin Goddess considered to be a form of Thunder and Lightning, from striking the temple.

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We saw the magnificent 9-storeyed palace built by King Prithvi Narayan Shah, the architect of modern Nepal who conquered the three Malla kingdoms of Nepal and unified it with the Gorkha kingdom. In Indra Chowk, the Akash Bhairav temple honored the unusual terrifying form of Shiva regarded as the Master of the Sky.

His giant form is artistically ‘caged’ to prevent him from flying off and the temple is opened only once a year during Kali Jumma. After wandering around the famous Freak Street (now Jochne) we guzzled local beer at New Orleans, a popular restaurant with retro architecture and a great vibe.

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Stupefying stupas & Himalayan views

The next morning, we headed for our Everest flight. The destination board at the airport counter simply stated “Mountain”! Buckled into a small seat on the tiny Buddha Air 19-seater Beechcraft 1900, with propellers spinning, we were off for a close encounter with Sagarmatha. The scene of high altitude lakes, marbled mountains and glaciers ringed by the world’s best-known peaks seared my mindscape. It was a dreamy tour as we flew just 20 miles short of the world’s highest peak. You even get a chance to sneak into the cockpit for an uninterrupted view and click a few pictures for posterity.

Back on terra firma, I was still dreaming as I walked down Tridevi Marg to the Garden of Dreams (Swapna Bagaicha), famous as the Garden of Six Seasons. The serene Edwardian botanical garden inside Kaiser Mahal, former home of the late Field Marshall Kaiser Shumsher Rana begs you to linger despite the damage to its stunning pavilions, statues, fountains and ponds.

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A leisurely lunch awaited us at Mulchowk Restaurant, a gourmet dining space inside a leafy courtyard of Baber Mahal. Named after Patan’s Mul Chowk or Main Square, the restaurant is set in the erstwhile palace residence of Baber Shumsher. Now renovated by his descendants into a complex of restaurants and multiple courtyards enveloped by a maze of boutiques, art galleries and swanky stores, the luxe hangout is a delightful tribute to Rana architecture.

We headed to the famous Patan Durbar Square, a market cum temple plaza – its atmospheric appeal heightened by the golden glow of sunset. A local band regaled the crowds in one corner as elderly folks and couples chattered around the temple pati (resting plinths) and steps.

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Tourists followed their babbling guides or haggled with hawkers along the cobbled pathways. King Yog Narendra Malla’s golden statue on a stone pillar loomed above as we explored the historic heritage site. We could cover only three of the ten odd temples in this vast complex and the trio of courtyards in the old palace – Mul Chowk, Sundari Chowk and Keshav Narayan Chowk.

The Mulchowk Palace Museum had a collection of statues, paintings and images of Hindu and Buddhist divinities. We saw the Thulja Bhavani shrine where the Malla kings performed sacred rituals and the stunning Sundari Chowk with its unique lace-like wood and ivory carved window, a masterpiece of Newari architecture. The exquisite sunken royal stone bath Tusha Hiti was suffused with intricate carvings.

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The Krishna Mandir, built from a single stone, flaunted its 21 pinnacles and scenes from Hindu epics. The 3-storeyed Golden Temple or Hiranyavarna Mahavihar monastery displayed outstanding metal sculptures. There was so much to Kathmandu our appetite couldn’t be quelled! After a late dinner, we hit the swanky rooftop lounge Prive at Labim Mall to catch the sparkle of the city’s nightlife.

Before heading to the airport next day, as I grabbed some traditional sel rotis to accompany my potato mash, Bir nodded approvingly. According to tradition, visitors and family members are offered this unusual ringed deep-fried bread made with rice flour, bananas and cinnamon before they travel. Since the sel roti’s ends meet and overlap like a bracelet, Nepalis consider it a symbol of reunion – a circle of life. “You may go around the world my friend but like the sel roti, you will return to Nepal someday.” he affirmed.

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FACT FILE 

Getting there
Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan Airport is just a 1hr 45 min flight from Delhi.

Where to stay
Fairfield by Marriott, Thamel
Tariff $100-$150
www.marriott.com

Dwarika’s Hotel Kathmandu
Dwarika’s Resort Dhulikel
Tariff Rs.25,000 + taxes onwards
www.dwarikas.com

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Where to Eat
Garden of Dreams Café
Mulchowk
Prive, Labim Mall
Thamel House

For more info, visit www.welcomenepal.com

Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 24 August 2018 in Indulge, the supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.

Higher Purpose: The Ascent of Everest

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To celebrate 60 years of the first ascent of the world’s tallest mountain, adventure enthusiasts ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY chronicle death, danger, dreams and the lure of the Everest

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From traveling to the ends of the earth, going into outer space or plumbing the depths of the ocean, man’s quest for exploration knows no bounds. One doesn’t look for logic in performing human feats that surpass the perceived limits of physical and mental endurance. Grit, self-belief and a sense of purpose empower individuals to undertake death-defying journeys, often to places where no one has gone before. Mountaineering is no different. On being asked why he climbed mountains, British climber George Mallory famously answered ‘Because it’s there…’

But how you can climb a mountain unless you know it’s there? For years, Kanchenjunga on the Sikkim-Nepal border was believed to be the world’s tallest mountain. Though the quest to scale Mount Everest is fairly well documented, the attempts to locate and measure it are not so well known… Equally fascinating is the part a group of Indians played in this epic adventure.

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In 1802, the British started the Great Trigonometric Survey of India to determine the earth’s curvature by measuring the length of the country. The survey would also map out the world’s highest mountains. For measurements, Col. William Lambton used giant theodolites, precision instruments that weighed 500 kg and took 12 men to carry! Lt. George Everest, appointed as assistant to Lambton in 1818, succeeded him as Surveyor-General of India (1830-43). Starting from South India, the surveyors slowly worked their way up north taking three decades to reach the foothills of the Himalayas. Wary of Britain’s imperialist designs, Nepal refused to give them access and the British continued their observations from the Terai region on the Nepal-Bihar border.

Since Nepal and Tibet were closed to foreigners, the British employed several natives in this enterprise. Syed Mir Mohsin Husain, an Arcot-born watchmaker from Madras joined in 1824 as an instrument repairer and eventually became chief mathematical instrument maker. Nain Singh Rawat of Kumaon entered Tibet disguised as a Lama and carried out secret surveys for nearly 2 years. Aided by Mani Singh and Kishen Singh, the Pundit brothers surveyed the Tibet mountains extensively. To avoid suspicion, these ‘spy explorers’ went disguised as monks or traders using ingenious methods.

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Measurements were coded as written prayers. These scrolls were hidden in the cylinder of the prayer wheel while a compass was stored in the lid. The topmost part of the monk’s staff hid a thermometer while secret pockets and false bottoms in provisions chests held surveying instruments. Mercury, used to create an artificial horizon, was kept in cowrie shells and was poured into the begging bowl whenever it had to be used. They were trained to take equal-paced steps and record distances using a modified Buddhist rosary with 100 beads instead of the standard 108. For every 100 steps they would count one bead, so a full rosary count represented 10,000 steps. Since each step was 31 ½ inches, a mile was roughly 2,000 steps.

Thus, Nain Singh became the first person to determine the exact location and altitude of Lhasa, mapped the trade route from Nepal to Tibet and the course of the Tsangpo River. Aiding the British was a battery of astute Bengali mathematicians led by Radhanath Sikdar, who joined the survey in the 1830s as a 19-year-old maths wunderkind and computor. In 1852 Sikdar informed the British Surveyor General of India Andrew Waugh that Peak XV was the highest point in the region and perhaps the world. After making sure, in 1856 Waugh recorded the first published height of Peak XV as 29,002 ft (8,840 m).

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On Waugh’s recommendation the Royal Geographical Society gave Peak XV its official English name in 1865 after his predecessor Sir George Everest. The irony was that Everest never even saw the mountain. He protested that his name was pronounced ‘Eev-rist’, not easy for the native tongue and was a departure from the standard practice of using the mountain’s local name. Although Tibetans had been calling the mountain Chomolungma for centuries, outsiders were not privy to this information. And so, the name ‘Mount Everest’ stuck and Sikdar was conveniently forgotten…

After the First World War and the Anglo-Afghan Wars, the British once again turned their attention to their original conquest – the world’s highest mountain. Access was either from Tibet to the north or through Nepal from the south, but both Himalayan countries were hostile to outsiders. It was only through high-level diplomacy and an appeal to Thubten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama that the British finally secured permission to visit Tibet in 1921.

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The first British Reconnaissance Expedition, organized by the Mount Everest Committee, explored routes up the North Col and produced the first accurate maps of the region. George Mallory was a part of this recce and returned in 1922 for the first true attempt. Man scaled a height above 8000m for the first time. During the 1924 British Mount Everest Expedition, Mallory and his young climbing partner Oxford student Andrew Irvine, disappeared high on the North-East ridge, just 800 vertical feet from the summit. Mallory’s fate was unknown for 75 years, until his body was discovered in 1999 by an expedition to locate the climbers’ remains. Whether Mallory was able to summit Everest, decades before Hillary’s ascent, remained the world’s biggest mountaineering mystery.

Subsequent attempts of Everest saw some of the biggest names of the British climbing fraternity – Hugh Ruttledge, who did a parikrama of Mount Kailash with his wife (the first Western woman to do so), Frank Smythe, who discovered Valley of Flowers on the Kamet expedition and Eric Shipton-Bill Tillman, the first to gain access to Nanda Devi Sanctuary. Shipton also gave a 19-year-old porter from Darjeeling his first Everest opportunity because of his attractive smile. His name was Tenzing Norgay.

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Elaborating on the difficulties of high altitude climbing, Shipton explained “It would seem almost as though there were a cordon drawn round the upper part of these great peaks beyond which no man may go. The truth, of course, lies in the fact that, at altitudes of 25,000 feet and beyond, the effects of low atmospheric pressure upon the human body are so severe that really difficult mountaineering is impossible and the consequences even of a mild storm may be deadly, that nothing but the most perfect conditions of weather and snow offer the slightest chance of success, and that on the last lap of the climb no party is in a position to choose its day.”

However, not all of Everest’s admirers were climbers. In 1933 Lady Houston, a feisty showgirl named Lucy turned British millionaire, funded the Houston-Everest Flight Expedition to fly over Everest for the first time. It was believed to be Lady Houston’s way of showing opposition to plans of granting India its independence. On a still April morning, two planes took off from Purnea’s Lalbalu Aerodrome in Bihar. Marquess of Clydesdale and Colonel Blacker flew in a Houston-Westland plane accompanied by Flight Lieutenant McIntyre and aerial photographer SR Bonnett in a Westland-Wallace. The weather was so good, the trial sortie turned into an actual flight and the planes soared 100 ft above the world’s highest mountain. They returned once more for better photography of the terrain. The cables went wild. “Mount Everest has been flown over.”

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The story of British eccentric Maurice Wilson is even more bizarre. A decorated World War I soldier, he got the idea of scaling Everest after reading newspaper clips of British expeditions and the Houston-Everest Flight while recovering at Black Forest. Magically cured of his long illness by a healer, Wilson was convinced that fasting and prayer were essential to his success, which would showcase his mystic beliefs to the world. He believed climbing Everest was his divine calling, “the job I’ve been given to do”. His plan, if it can be called one, was to fly a small plane to Tibet, crash-land it on the upper slopes of Everest and amble across to the summit.

Flying solo halfway across the world was a challenging task, let alone a solo ascent of Everest, a feat achieved only in 1980. Wilson was neither an aviator nor a mountaineer, so he decided to take a crash course, literally. He bought a Gipsy Moth, christened it ‘Ever Wrest’, took twice the time to get a pilot’s licence and crash-landed near Bradford. He earned a flying ban from the Air Ministry even before his expedition began. For climbing skills, rather than learning technical aspects like using an ice axe and crampons, he walked about the moderate hills of Snowdonia for five weeks, before declaring himself ready.  

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In May 1933, Wilson managed to fly illegally from Britain to India via Cairo, Bahrain and Persia but his plane was impounded at Purnea. He spent the winter fasting and praying in Darjeeling, where he providentially met three Sherpas from the 1933 Ruttledge expedition. In March 1934, they slipped into Tibet disguised as Lamas and reached Rongbuk monastery. As per the grand plan, Wilson was to transport himself to the summit using his spiritual prowess and would signal the success of his mission to the monks with a shaving mirror. Maurice Wilson’s body and diary were found wrapped in a tent by a British expedition in 1935.

After a brief lull during the Second World War, political developments in the Himalayas changed the way climbers would approach Everest. Post-war the Dalai Lama had closed Tibet to foreigners. In 1950, the Chinese took control of Tibet, closing access via the north face while Nepal relaxed its borders to foreigners, opening up the southern route. The Everest was no longer an exclusively British dream as it drew international attention from Canadian, Swiss and Soviet climbers. In the 1952 expedition the Swiss managed to make the first climb to South Col. With each expedition climbers inched closer to the summit. It was going to be a race to the top…

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In 1953, the British launched their ninth expedition under John Hunt. With the French securing permission to climb in 1954 and the Swiss in 1955, the British would get another shot only in 1956. It was now or never. The first climbing pair of Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon achieved the first ascent of the 8,750 m (28,700 ft) South Summit and stopped 100 m short of the final summit because of faulty oxygen equipment and lack of time. Two days later, on May 29, 1953 New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made the second and final assault. Climbing the South Col route, they negotiated a 40 ft rock face (later named Hillary Step) and summited at 11:30 am. They spent 15 minutes to click photos and bury sweets as an offering to the mountain before descending.

In John Hunt’s The Ascent of Everest Edmund Hillary notes, “My initial feelings were of relief – relief that there were no more steps to cut, no more ridges to traverse and no more humps to tantalize us with hopes of success… we shook hands and then Tenzng threw his arm around my shoulders and we thumped each other on the back until we were almost breathless.” Times reporter James Morris descended from 22,000 feet to send a coded message through a runner, who walked 20 miles to get to the nearest radio at Namche Bazaar. The message was sent using the bicycle-powered radio station in Morse code to the Indian and British embassies in Kathmandu. A wireless transmitter relayed the news to London, just in time for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in the morning. The Everest conquest was perhaps the last major news delivered to the world through runner.

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In the years that followed, others conquered the peak. The Swiss expedition succeeded in 1956. Tenzing Norgay’s nephew Nawang Gombu became the first person to reach the summit twice. He went as part of an American expedition in 1963 and the 1965 Indian expedition, the third attempt after two failed missions. Led by Lieutenant Commander MS Kohli, nine of 21-man Indian contingent scaled the summit, India becoming the fourth country to do so. Captain Avtar Singh Cheema was the first Indian on Everest. In 1966 the Nepal government banned climbing in the Nepal Himalayas and when it reopened in 1969, the Japanese were the first to leave a mark.

On May 6, 1970 Yuichiro Miura became the first person to ski on Mount Everest. He descended nearly 4,200 vertical feet from South Col (25,938 ft), a feat documented in the 1975 film The Man Who Skied Down Everest. It won the Academy Award for best documentary, the first for a sports film. In 2003, Miura became the oldest person to summit Everest at the age of 70, accompanied by his son Gota Miura. When a fellow Japanese broke his record by three days, Miura reclaimed his title in 2008 at the age of 75 years and 227 days. It was later found that Nepali Min Bahadur Sherchan, aged 76 years and 330 days had summited a day earlier. Not one to give up, Miura once again reclaimed his title on May 22 this year at the age of 80. Having nearly died on his descent but helped by son Gota, Miura says he will not challenge the mountain again. “Three times is enough!”

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They weren’t the first father-son duo to climb Everest. Befittingly that record rests with Sir Edmund and Peter Hillary who achieved the feat in 1990. In May 2002, Peter returned with Tenzing Norgay’s son Jamling as part of a National Geographic Society expedition to mark the 50th anniversary of the first ascent by their fathers. Lukla, counted among the most dangerous airports in the world, was renamed in 2008 after Tenzing-Hillary who helped develop it. People start their climb to Mount Everest Base Camp from Lukla, taking two days to reach Namche Bazaar, the gateway to the high Himalayas.

In the last 60 years over 3,000 people from 20 countries have climbed the Everest with nearly 5654 ascents and 219 casualties. Most who reach the summit die on their descent, usually in the Death Zone or heights of over 8000m. For every ten successful ascents there’s one death, but armed with better equipment, technology and knowhow, climbers are now making it to the top with relative safety. On one day alone in 2012, 234 climbers reached the peak. Such unprecedented access has raised concerns of over-commercialization, garbage disposal, climbing protocol and environmental impact.

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This year the 60th anniversary of the first ascent was celebrated in Nepal with high-altitude marathons, a clean-up operation at Everest Base Camp and colourful processions in Kathmandu featuring Kanchha Sherpa, one of the last surviving members of the 1953 expedition and mountaineer Reinhold Messner, the first to climb Everest without oxygen, the first to do it solo and also the first to scale all the 14 eight-thousanders in the world.

Meanwhile, records continue to tumble – this year alone saw Phurba Tashi equaling Apa Sherpa’s record for most summits (21 times), Arunima Sinha becoming the first female amputee to scale Everest and the world’s highest BASE jump. Russian extreme sports legend Valery Rozov flew off Everest’s north face from 23,680 ft. Besides climbing feats, Everest has hosted the world’s highest concert, the first 3G call, first descent by paraglider and among other things, the world’s highest fight at 23,000 ft, with an ugly brawl between Western climbers and sherpas in May 2013.

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High-altitude mountain guide Adrian Ballinger summed up the incident well. “The constant pressure to break records, attempt new routes, and be the strongest, whether for personal pride, sponsors, future job offers, or media, can cloud the purity of our climbing here. And these pressures can lead to disagreements, arguments, and hurt feelings. But none of these pressures should be allowed to lead to violence, or to breaking the essential bonds that tie climbers to each other”.

Last heard, 81-year-old Min Bahadur had abandoned his attempt to become the oldest man on Everest due to bad weather and the bureaucratic delay by the Nepal government to allocate funds as he waited at Base Camp. Yuichiro Miura can breathe easy while Everest patiently awaits the next wave of climbers…

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Mounting costs
Climbing Mount Everest is an expensive proposition. The permit alone costs $10,000 to $25,000 per person, depending on the team’s size. Climbing gear can cost US$8,000 and bottled oxygen adds around $3,000. Transferring equipment from the airport to the base camp, 100 km from Kathmandu, can add $2,000.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 21 July 2013 in Sunday Herald as a cover story to celebrate 60 years of the first ascent of Everest.

Life ma Boom Boom Chha: Offbeat Nepal Adventure

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White-water rafting, canyoning, paragliding, bungee, canyon swing, wildlife walks, rice liquour, ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY try it all and pick their Top 10 things to do in Nepal

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Bungee jump & canyon swing from a 160m high bridge
There’s nothing apocalyptic about The Last Resort, though it is located near the Nepal-Tibet border and is really the final word for adrenaline junkies. The excitement of a bungee jump from a metal bridge over the raging Bhote Kosi 160 m below can be matched only by the world’s highest canyon swing. After 8 seconds of free-fall, you go screaming like a banshee through the gorge in a 240 m arc, before slowly coming to a stop. The Last Resort will pick you up from Kathmandu, shoot a video of your jump and give a T-shirt as well. Ph +977 1 4700525, 4700730 http://www.thelastresort.com.np

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Raft the Bhote Koshi, Nepal’s steepest river at Borderlands
Around 100km from Kathmandu and a 3 hr drive away is Barabise, where 240 Nepalese soldiers died in an ancient battle with the Tibetans (the name comes from barah bis or twelve times twenty); a perfect base for gutsy adventurers. Borderlands Eco Adventure Resort organizes 2-day canyoning and white water rafting in the wild rapids of Bhote Koshi plummeting from Tibet. Take a plunge from Jumping Rock or tackle grade IV rapids like Gerbil in the Plumber, Frog in the Blender and Carnal Knowledge of a Deviant Nature, named after the compromising position you end up in! Ph +977 1 4701295, 4700894 www.borderlandresorts.com

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Jump off a mountain – Go paragliding at Pokhra
For a birds eye view of the beautiful lake town of Pokhra and spectacular Annapurna range, head to Sarangkot or sunrise point. If admiring the Machapuchare (Fishtail) peak isn’t enough, try jumping off the mountainside; strapped of course, to your paragliding instructor for a tandem flight overlooking Phewa Lake. As the ground heats up and air currents get warm, bright coloured chutes light up the sky and waft in the thermals for the most exciting ride of your life. Blue Sky Paragliding, Lake Side 6, Khahare, Pokhara Ph +977 61 464737, 463015 http://www.paragliding-nepal.com

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See a rhino on foot – wildlife walks at Chitwan
Located in the terai lowlands of South Central Nepal, Chitwan is Nepal’s oldest national park. Accessible from Bharatpur Airport nearby, the nodal town of Sauraha offers a choice of wildlife lodges like Baghmara and Maruni, restaurants and tour operators who organize a range of experiences. Elephant safari, boat rides, cultural dance of the local Tharu community or walks into the forest to see rhinos on foot. A word of advice, rhinos don’t like the colour white so dress appropriately!

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Take a thrilling cable car ride to Manakamana Devi
For centuries pilgrims undertook an arduous 5-hr trek to the hilltop shrine of Manakamana Devi, appeasing the wish-fulfilling goddess by sacrificing chickens, pigeons and goats. But Nepal’s only cable car ride, introduced in 1998 changed all that. About 105 km west of Kathmandu on the Pokhara highway near Mugling is Kurintar, the starting point. The magical 3km cable car ride climbs from 258m to 1302m in 10 minutes, presenting views of Trisuli and Marshyangdi river valleys. On wintry mornings the ridge juts like an island through the sea of mist. Thirty cable cars ferry 6 people each time, besides a special carriage dedicated for sacrificial goats!

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Visit Lumbini, Lord Buddha’s birthplace
Walk the Middle Path on a Buddhist Circuit Tour through Nepal’s terai region while staying at Buddha Maya Garden in Lumbini. See the sal tree under which Maya Devi rested, the marker stone in a brick enclosure indicating Siddhartha’s place of birth in 623 BC and the Pushkarni (sacred tank) where Maya Devi gave the newborn his first bath. Don’t miss the Eternal Peace Flame and World Peace Bell in the Sacred Garden, and monasteries of Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Japan and Mongolia in the International Monastic Zone. Germany’s Great Drigung Kagyud Lotus Stupa, Vietnamese Phat Quoc Tu temple and Chinese Zhong Hua temple are stunning, as is the Japanese World Peace Pagoda. Kapilavastu, the ancient capital of Lord Buddha’s father Shakya king Shuddhodhana, is a short drive away.

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Get a singing bowl treatment
In the narrow bylanes of Lalitpur behind Patan’s Golden Temple lies the quaint Tibetan Singing Bowl Centre, a tiny shop crammed with masks and artefacts. Owner Sudeep Lamsal loves to demonstrate the power of the singing bowls through sound therapy. And if you don’t believe it, watch him create fountains in a bowl of water through mere vibration. To quote an ancient Lama saying on the wall ‘I am a master of sound. Through sound I can kill what lives and bring back to life what is dead.’

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Try Nepali street food
From baph mah mah (buffalo momo) to street food like sekuwa (barbecued goat meat), kachila (spiced mincemeat) and choila (char grilled buffalo meat), Nepal’s cuisine is quite varied. Eat the staple dal-bhat-tarkari (lentil, rice, vegetables) or chyura (beaten rice) in the numerous bhancha ghars (local eateries). Feast on Newari cuisine popular in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan, try a Thakali thali, a mix of Himalayan and lowland cuisines in Pokhara or Bandipur and relish the fish fry at Dolalghat. Wash it all down with raksi, the fiery rice liquor or Oranjeboom.

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Take a Mountain Flight
If the drive to Lukla and a climb to Everest Base Camp seem daunting, take a shortcut. The 1hr mountain flight from Kathmandu is the quickest way to see the magnificent peaks of the Himalayas. Marvel at Mount Everest (8848m), Shisha Pangma (8027m) and Cho Oyu (8201m) at dawn. Local flight operators like Agni, Buddha, Guna and Yeti offer the Everest Experience for just over Rs.5,000 for Indians and US$ 176 for other nationalities. Feb-April and Oct-Nov is the best time for visibility with clear blue skies.

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Visit the hill retreats of Nagarkot, Bandipur, Dhulikhel & Changu Narayan
If Pokhra is passé or too long a drive, try the mountainous charms of Nepal’s other destinations. Stay at Peaceful Cottage in Nagarkot while enjoying great sunrise views. Visit the Changu Museum at the historic shrine of Changu Narayan. Get a taste of the old at Gaun Ghar and The Old Inn in the quaint village of Bandipur or luxuriate at Dwarika’s Himalayan Shangri-La Village Resort in Dhulikhel, overlooking 20 peaks like Annapurna (8091 m), Ganesh Himal (7429 m), Langtang (7234 m), Lhotse (8516 m) and Gauri Shankar (7134 m).

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 7 September 2012 in Conde Nast Traveller online.

Eyes of the Buddha: Nepal Buddhist Trail

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY visit Lord Buddha’s birthplace on Buddha Jayanti as they follow the Buddhist trail in Nepal – from Lumbini in the terai (lowlands) to Swayambhunath and Bouddha in Kathmandu 

The rickshaw creaked painfully along a hazy ribbon of grey. Images of snowy peaks melted into pools of sweat as we braved the hot winds sweeping across Nepal’s southwestern terai. It seemed cruel to subject a fellow human being to such physical strain and worse to deny his right to earn a living. Racked by these twin conflicts we shifted uneasily, more from guilt than the discomfort of our seat. Riddled with inner conflict, we chose to traverse the Middle Path on our Buddhist Circuit Tour at Lumbini.

In a land where the Eyes of the Buddha follow you everywhere, we were fortunate to be at the place of his birth on Buddha Jayanti. Was it mere coincidence? We imagined how it must have been in 623 BC when Maya Devi, a queen of the Shakya clan, journeyed from Kapilavastu to her maternal home in Devdaha. Admiring the beauty of the region around Lumbini, she stopped to rest in a grove of sal trees, when she was struck by sudden labour pangs. It is said that Maya Devi clutched a drooping branch of a sal tree as she gave birth to Siddhartha, the future Buddha. She took a dip in the Pushkarni or sacred tank and gave the newborn his first bath. 

A sudden clang of gongs brought us back to the present. A procession of ochre-robed monks walked past the tank towards the Maya Devi temple. Enshrined amidst the brick ruins of an older structure, was a moss-covered slab of stone. Excavated as recently as 1996, this was no ordinary stone, for it marked the exact spot of Lord Buddha’s birth. We followed the monks as they paid homage to the marker stone and the unusual Nativity Sculpture, a bas relief depicting Maya Devi and the birth of Buddha. A drone of chants drew us outside to the Ashoka Pillar, where a sizeable crowd had gathered. Various tongues blended into one voice of devotion as Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world bowed their heads in prayer. 

The tall cylindrical column stood within a metal fence and the faint scrawl was barely discernible. Erected by Emperor Ashoka in 249 B.C. to mark his visit, the Pali inscription in Brahmi script is believed to be the first epigraphic evidence related to the life of Buddha. Besides confirming the spot as Buddha’s birthplace, it also records the economic impact of Ashoka’s visit – Lumbini’s tax liability was reduced to one eighth!

Meandering past the ruins of stupas in the sprawling Sacred Garden, we came to the Eternal Peace Flame and World Peace Bell overlooking a canal. As part of a global initiative to promote Lumbini as a centre for world peace, different countries and Buddhist sects had constructed a fascinating array of temples, monasteries and stupas. Myanmar, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Japan, Mongolia – the International Monastic Zone was virtually the United Nations of Buddhism. 

Ironically, it was the German Monastery (Great Drigung Kagyud Lotus Stupa) that was most riveting. From an ornamental alcove in the stupa, Buddha gazed down over the pagoda-style roof in benevolence. A flight of steps led to the main shrine where every inch of wall space was awash with lavish paintings.  Four gigantic prayer wheels set in uniquely designed pavilions marked the corners of the surrounding garden and gilded statues depicted landmark events from Buddha’s life. 

A quaint bridge led us to the gateway of the Vietnamese Phat Quoc Tu temple with its delicate lacy architectural embellishments. The conical spire of the Myanmar monastery pierced the blue sky like a golden dagger. Massive Confucian deities at the entrance and a beautiful Buddha statue formed the main highlights of the Chinese Zhong Hua temple. Each monument had a different interpretation of Buddhist ideology in architecture and style. To the north of the monastic complex was the Lumbini Museum, a treasure trove of ancient relics like Mauryan Kushan coins, sacred manuscripts and sculptures. The Lumbini International Research Institute nearby had a phenomenal collection of over 12,000 books and periodicals on religion, philosophy and art. 

Just across the road stood the Japanese World Peace Pagoda. Moved by a tragic sense of loss after the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Ven. Nichidatsu Fujii, founder of the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist order, erected peace pagodas across the world. Built according to the tenets of the Lotus sutra to disseminate love and peace, the foundation stone and pinnacle of the pagoda enshrine Lord Buddha’s relics. The gold-plated bronze of Nepal’s tallest Buddha statue in the niche gleamed in the sun as visitors rested on the cool marble floor in the shadow of the giant dome. In the distance we spotted a fox slinking across the plains as nilgai grazed unafraid in an open patch. The harsh dry season was not the right time to visit the adjacent IUCN Wetland Park where Sarus cranes and other wetland birds abound. 

So we continued on our Buddhist trail to Kapilavastu, the ancient capital of the Shakya king Shuddhodhana, Lord Buddha’s father. It was here that Buddha spent the first 29 years of his princely life before renouncing the material world. He left his father’s palace from the eastern gateway, the ‘Mahabhinishkramana Dwara’, tied his horse to a tree and left on his quest for truth. Excavations at Kapilavastu (present-day Tilaurakot) have unearthed the ruins of the palace complex encircled by a 22 feet wide moat and 10 feet wide defense walls with gateways on the east and west. 

Our next stop was Kudan, the ancient site of Nigrodharma (Banyan Grove) where king Shudhodhana built a monastery to welcome his son when he returned as the Enlightened One and Prajapati, his mother’s sister presented a Kashaya Vastra to him. In later years, Buddha’s son Rahula entered into monkhood here. But all that remained were a few brick mounds bearing floral carvings. 

For a Buddhophile, there are many places worthy of exploration. Spread over a 12 km radius around the town of Taulihawa, you find several historic sites – Aurorakot (the natal town of Kanakmuni Buddha), Niglihawa (site of a tank and Ashoka Pillar), Sagarhawa (an ancient pond where Shakyas were massacred), Gotihawa (stupa and Ashoka Pillar) and Ramagrama (10 m high brick stupa), besides other archeological ruins. 

Free from his responsibilities after the Buddha Jayanti festivities, Jeevnath Pandey of Kapilavastu Nagar Palika, accompanied us on some of our forays. When asked if India’s claim of Piprahwa in UP as the original Kapilavastu was true, he chuckled. ‘India has three major sites; we have only one! Though Lumbini was Buddha’s janm-bhoomi (place of birth), his karm-bhoomi (place of duty) was India! Sarnath, Bodhgaya and dozens of other sites in India enjoy the spotlight, but Kapilavastu, overshadowed by Lumbini, lies forgotten. Yet, you want more?’ No we didn’t. It was time to go.   

The Full Buddhist Circuit

Complete the Buddhist Circuit in Nepal by visiting famous stupas like Swayambhunath and Bouddhanath, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Besides Lumbini, the other three major sites related to the Buddha include Bodh Gaya (where he attained enlightenment), Sarnath (where he held his first public discourse) and Kushinagar (where he attained Maha-parinirvana). Subsidiary sites include Rajgir (where Buddha meditated for months and venue of the First Buddhist Council), Kaushambi (where he delivered many sermons), Shravasti (his favourite monsoon resort) and Vaishali (where he gave his last sermon and the Second Buddhist Council was held).

FACTFILE

How to get there

Jet Airways operates regular flights from Delhi and Calcutta to Kathmandu. Local carriers like Buddha Air and Yeti Air run direct flights (30-45 min) to Bhairahawa (Siddhartha Nagar), 22 km from Lumbini. Located very close to the Indian border, Lumbini is just 27 km from Sunauli in Uttar Pradesh.

When to go

Buddha Jayanti or Buddha Purnima, celebrated in May, is an auspicious time to visit Lumbini, provided you can withstand the peak summer of the terai region. November to March offer more pleasant climes.

Where to Stay

Buddha Maya Garden 
Ph 00977-1-4700 800
Email info@ktmgh.com 
www.ktmgh.com/buddha 

Lumbini Hokke Hotel 
Ph 00977-71-580136, 580236
Email subhokke_btw@wlink.com.np
www.theroyalresidency.net

Hotel Buddha Palace
Buddha Nagar 8, Lumbini
Ph 00977-71-580272, 9847135543

Gautam Buddha Lodge
VDC Padariya Bazar, Lumbini
Ph 00977-71-580138
gautam_buddha2008@yahoo.com

Ashoka Pillar Resort, Lumbini
Ph 00977-71-580169

Contact

Lumbini Development Trust
Sacred Garden, Lumbini 
Ph 00977-71-580189, 580200

Nepal Tourism Board
www.welcomenepal.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the April, 2011 issue of JetWings magazine.

Dangers of Another Kind: Adventure Sports in Nepal

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Bungee-jumping, white-water rafting, paragliding, canyoning, canyon swing, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY try it all to get high on adrenaline in Nepal

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It wasn’t exactly the most auspicious start. Amidst news of a coup and a bird flu epidemic, we landed at Kathmandu Airport, where a flurry of masked attendants with drips and stretchers waved official forms in red, blue and green. The bleak sky offered the perfect welcome and we cursed ourselves for not bringing any rain gear. By the end of the 6 weeks we spent in Nepal, we were chiding ourselves for a dozen other things.

Like diving off Jumping Rock into the river and being bailed out by a kayak, barely surviving a toss from a raft in Nepal’s most challenging river, barfing like sick puppies after a heavy breakfast while paragliding over Pokhara, bungee jumping from a 160 m high suspension bridge and the world’s highest canyon swing, getting stranded in a cable car mid-air at Manokamana Devi and escaping a sudden landslide near Mugling. Our journey was in many regards a survivor’s guide to Nepal.

jumping rock

At a small café in Thamel, Megh Ale of Ultimate Descent stared pensively at our seemingly unfit bodies. ‘Have you rafted before? Can you swim?’ Perhaps he secretly hoped our blubber would help us stay afloat. ‘Umm… sure, but not very elegantly.’ Intrigued by the pamphlet about the Bhote Kosi being “the most exciting thing you can do in Nepal without risking a social disease”, we convinced him we’d be in time for the 6 am mini-van.

Luckily it was a short hop from our hotel, the iconic Kathmandu Guest House. The evening was well-spent pub-hopping, souvenir hunting and sampling traditional Newari cuisine at Thamel House. The next morning we said goodbye to ‘THAMEL: To Homely Atmosphere & More Enjoyable Living’ and headed for Barabise, a 3 hr drive to the Nepal-Tibet border, 100 km away.

scaling a mountain half-asleep in frog pyjamas

As we passed Dhulikhel, the Langthang peak and the lofty Ganesh Himal range loomed on the horizon. After tea at Jiro Kilo and fish fry at Dolalghat, we climbed steadily. On seeing the angry white rapids below, several alarmed voices asked in unison ‘Are we going to be in THERE?’ Our rafting guide smiled sagely. The glacial waters of the Bhote Kosi descend from the tenth highest mountain Shisa Pangma in Tibet to create the steepest river in Nepal. This was a river that had wiped out entire villages in the plains of North Bihar. We wondered what it would do to us in its own hilly backyard. The van swung into Borderlands and we were ushered into a large thatched dining area with low seating. A row of tents peeped out of the foliage and the crash of the river constantly reminded us why we were there.

Prem Dai, our adventure expert outlined the program – 2 days of canyoning or abseiling down waterfalls followed by 2 days of rafting. After a crash course in knots, harnesses and basic techniques, we donned our wet suits and set off to conquer the nearest khola (mountain stream). Day 1 was a beginner’s course at Golung Khola aka 95 (located 95 km from Kathmandu), a tough climb that pitted us against eight levels of 5-20 m drops. Finding our footing against the slippery rock face and overhangs was tricky but soon we caught on. Some sections ended in deep pools and our guides encouraged us to jump in before we reached the base.

Canyoning at Kabre Khola with Borderlands DSC02154

Day 2 was a five-level obstacle course at Kabre Khola that involved sliding, jumping and abseiling down torrential chasms of up to 45 m! As each candidate leaned out to glance at the final descent, a gasp of ‘Oh…My…God’ inadvertently escaped his lips! A relentless jet of water battered our helmets, blinded our eyes and deafened our ears as every muscle ached to get back on solid ground.

The next day was designated for whitewater rafting. We drove to our put-in point just below the Sun Kosi dam. Rafts were inflated and after a riverside lunch, we went through paddling instructions and safety manoeuvres. Ideal for beginners, this stretch had Class III-IV rapids and the half-day trip was largely uneventful, except for the Jumping Rock misadventure. On Day 2 the waters of the Upper Bhote Kosi had swollen with the previous night’s rain.

Rafting on Bhote Koshi DSC03128

Kicking off from Borderlands Resort, we went through Gerbil in the Plumber, Frog in the Blender and understood why Carnal Knowledge of a Deviant Nature was so named (after the compromising position you end up in). At Barabise, we stopped for lunch, where twelve (barah) times twenty (bis) Nepalese soldiers had supposedly been killed in an ancient battle with the Tibetans. That afternoon, while co-ordinating photography, we nearly added one more casualty to the list. ‘Man overboard, man overboard!’

Despite a bruised knee, we trudged up 4 km from Borderlands to The Last Resort, a Mecca for adventure buffs. From the metal bridge, the wild Bhote Kosi 160 m below seemed like a white ribbon carving its course through the craggy gorge. Our guide instructed us in his accented English, ‘At the bridge, No cry mummy daddy, I don’t wanna jump, yea! When I say 3, 2, 1, Bungee, you jump. Ok?’ The earnest query of ‘What if the rope swings and we slam against the rocks?’ was met with utter contempt. ‘You don’t control rope ok, rope control you!’

Bungee jumping from 160m at The Last Resort DSC02881 Anurag Mallick

With jittery nerves and jelly knees we awaited our turn. No amount of psyching oneself could silence the alarm bells clanging within. As we were strapped up, the video guy joked ‘Any last words?’ And we thought he was there to document our plunge! Like in a screen test, we displayed a wide range of emotions – fear, excitement, anxiety, nonchalance, hysteria. But it all ended the same way – a series of long guttural screams accompanying each jump.

In comparison, the Canyon Swing offered a different thrill. After 8 seconds of free-fall, you oscillated like a giant pendulum in a wide 240 m arc, yodeling like Tarzan. Suspended over the Bhote Kosi, we clutched at the bamboo pole extended to us and scrambled to the riverbank for the long trudge to the top. We skipped the High Ropes obstacle course, but the adrenalin rush propelled us to go higher to the Tibetan border.

Cable car ride to Manokamana Devi DSC01917 Anurag Mallick

A constant bustle of traders and tourists headed for Lhasa and Mansarovar, Kodari was a typical border town. We were warned not to take pictures, especially near the Friendship Bridge. It was clearly a misnomer. Chinese agents tried to pass off as Nepalis but their icy glare and stony expressions gave them away. However, we had perfected the ‘ditsy Indian couple on honeymoon’ routine to perfection. A shaky snap, a quick snack of baph mah mah (buffalo momo) and we soon returned to the comforting warmth of Kathmandu.

After a night at Dwarika’s Heritage hotel, we boarded a rattling flight to Pokhra to see if we could survive paragliding. The friendly staff at Shangri-La Resort put us on to Blue Sky, the best in the business. Sarangkot, the sunrise point was the ideal perch as we waited patiently for warm currents to kick in. Strapped to the chute for a tandem flight, the instructor asked us to start running and literally jump off the mountainside. It was going great until we were stumped by the trick question ‘You want some ‘woo woo’ stuff?’ A sharp left made us regret our decision immediately.

Pokhara Paragliding DSC_02880001_Anurag Mallick

The chutes hit the pockets of warm air and climbed instead of descending. It was like zig-zagging through invisible traffic. We didn’t crash into Phewa Lake as feared but eventually had the gentlest of landings on the water’s edge. As we unstrapped ourselves, our eyes traveled to a large hand-painted ad for Orangeboom beer. ‘Life ma boom boom chha?’ asked the tagline. We smiled weakly.

FACTFILE

How to get there

Jet Airways runs regular flights to Kathmandu from Delhi and Calcutta. From there, smaller flights connect you to Pokhara, Bharatpur (Chitwan) and other destinations in Nepal.

When to go

Though the trekking season stretches from October to May, October-November and March-April are ideal for white-water rafting

with chandan giri baba from motihari bihar at durbar square

Where to Stay/What to do 

Borderlands Eco Adventure Resort Ph +977 1 4701295, 4700894 www.borderlandresorts.com

The Last Resort Ph +977 1 4700525, 4700730 www.thelastresort.com.np

Blue Sky Paragliding, Lake Side 6, Khahare, Pokhara Ph +977 61 464737, 463015 www.paragliding-nepal.com

Dwarika’s Hotel, Kathmandu Ph +977 1 479488 www.dwarika.com

Shangri La Village Pokhara Ph +977 61 462222, 460200 www.hotelshangrila.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the February, 2011 issue of JetWings International magazine.