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Madurai

Madurai is one of the oldest living cities of the world. The center and the reason for the city is the complex of the Sri Meenakshi Temple. The immense and colourful Entrance doors (Gopurams) are visible even before you reach the city. To get to the temple is an experience in itself. Since the city was build in a rectangular pattern around the temple long time ago, the streets are narrow and full of people, cars and other means of transport. Its a real challenge for the driver to negotiate his car trough these alleys and lanes. Once you are there, the complex just seems to spread without end in each direction. Once you have passed the main gate you realise that there is another wall within, protecting shrines and ponds. You enter into a city, vibrant with pilgrims, here to ask for favours, fix marriages, hold ceremonies and simply come to devote some time to their inner healing. There are halls with shrines, dedicated to the planets. There are temples for Ganesha, the bringer of luck and two main shrines, one for the goddess Meenakshi and one to Shiva her consort. Their duality represents the static principle (Shiva) and the emotional or dynamic manifestation (Parvati). This duality or inseparability is repeated in Hinduism again and again, signifying each time the manifestation of a different aspect of life and the universe. There is always just not enough time inside Meenakshi, there is so much to see, learn and simply witness. Besides the wonderful temple, make sure to pass by at the Tirumal Nayak Palace, a Palace full of influence of different European cultural periods.

Thanjavur

People call it the “big temple” and the talk is of the probably grandest structure in South India, the Brihadeshwara Temple at Thanjavur. The top of the temple is adorned by a 70 ton rock and till date the speculation is on, on how this giant rock was brought up there more than 1000 years ago. The tenple is not s colorful as many other and that makes him sort of a change. Is the size that impresses and its simplicity. The temple feels like an oasis, just a wonderful place to see.

If you are in Thanjavur you have to make sure to visit one of the famous Veena makers. The Sarasvati, or Rudra Veena is a South Indian classical instrument that hasn’t changed much since the times of the vedas, almost 3000 years ago. Its a string instrument made from the wood of the jack fruit tree and it takes a craftsman several weeks to create one instrument. To visit these craftsmen is like visiting a museum, where literally thousands of years greet you in a still active environment.

Darasuram

Darasuram is not a living temple these days. Yet it is a wonderful place to see the astonishing temple architecture in a smaller form. Its nice to roam the premises in a place, where the intricacies of the workmanship are not in neck craning heights. The temple really boasts a wonderful insight into the temple art of South India including many fine and wonderful sculptures adorning walls and pillars.

Chidambaram

Chidambaram might be considered by many just a stop over on the way to central Tamil Nadu. Yet just passing by would be a pity, because to the locals this is one of the most important places in the land. The Shiva temple in the town center is considered to be the magnetic equator of the world. The place is sacred to Hindus, because it is here, where the energy streams criss crossing the globe form a knot. And it is here that Shiva danced his Tandava, the dance of destruction and creation. It is from here that the dancing image of Shiva in the form of Nataraja was formed, multiple arms, surrounded by flames and balancing himself dancing on the body of a demon. It is said, that if you conquer your ego (the demon, destruction) the universe will open up and grant you all its secrets (ring of flames, creation). To Hindus this place is therefore holy as it is said to grant passage from our limited intellect into the knowledge and wisdom of the universe, known as Moksha. The temple is open to all visitors and allows us to witness the rituals at the main shrine.

Nyatapola temple, still standing tall

The Nyatapola Temple was built in 1702 A.D. under the rule of King Bhupatindra Malla. This beautifully sculptured building is considered one of the tallest pagodas in the country and is a lovely example of the immense workmanship that went into buildings of this type. This five-storey temple stands over thirty meters high can be reached by walking up a flight of steps that leads to the top of the platform. As you walk up these stairs you will notice that there are statues on either side of you, on every step.

The temple is dedicated to Durga, the destroyer of all evil.

Note: The temple was unaffected by the Earthquake in April 2015

Behind the mighty Himalayas

Mustang – where pilgrims meet

There are places on this planet no word can describe and no picture can capture their grandeur. To me, Mustang behind the mighty mountains of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri range is such a place. The barren landscape looks like it has been painted in vast array of different shades of reds, blues, browns and greens. The structures of the hills, valleys and mountains tell the story of the continental drift that created the highest range on earth – the Himalayas.

The monsoon rains that lash each year the southern face of the mountains are blocked by the Earth’s highest peaks that rise here high above the clouds. Rainfall is rare and the green, oasis like patches are fed by glistening white glaciers and eternal snow covering the peaks above 6000 Meters.

Its a harsh world for man and beast. Before tourism provided new opportunities, the people lived a semi nomadic life by growing crops like buckwheat and potatoes along the glacial streams and by rearing Yak on high altitude meadows.

For visitors however it is an enchanting place. Stark blue skies, glistening white peaks and green patches of cultivated land greet the visitors. Colorful prayer flags on roofs, Gompas and hillocks play in the wind. The air is pristine and clear and the colors seem to be of an almost surreal intensity.

People here are gentle and seem to be devoid of stress and the constant nervous behavior we are used to from our stressed out folks back home. Life is slower and in tune with the seasons that still rule man and beast.

Visitors and trekkers come here to walk on ancient trade routes with Tibet and to see the former hidden Kingdom of Lo Manthang. Then there is the world famous route around the mighty massive of the Annapurna Himal, crossing the Thorong La at 5400 Meters.

At the foot of the pass trekkers pass trough one of the most sacred pilgrim places in the  Himalayas – Muktinath. The small shrine build here long ago is dedicated to Lord Shiva, who carries the Trishul (Trident) and is worshipped as the Lord of the three worlds, also known as the past, the future and the present. The pilgrims to this place are traditionally asking for Moksha (Mukti) or the liberation of the soul from rebirths. They are asking for Yoga or the union of their soul with the divine.

Foreign travelers are likely to meet pilgrims that have been walking for month to reach the temple. Many of them have done their duties as spouses, fathers, mothers and contributors to society and their last act in life is towards their soul and liberation from rebirth.

DSCF5717 - Version 2On our journey we met three men who walked barefoot all the way from central India, unfazed by weather, sleeping outdoor and painful feet. Their eyes were serene and calm and happily they chatted and told us about their journey, not even surprised that as a foreigner I was able to converse in their language.

Since long, I am convinced that travelers choose destinations like Mustang, Muktinath, Varanasi and other places in India and Nepal trough their unconscious and the seeking of their souls. Traveling here, no matter how luxurious or adventurous we choose to do so, becomes often without our conscious knowing a pilgrimage towards our inner self.

Note: the area of Mustang has not been affected by the Earthquake in April 2015

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Nepal Impressions July 2015

A trip to remember….

You could say that I am a little “tainted” with my love for Nepal, since I had been working there in the Mid Eighties. After that my good fortune took me to the Travel Industry and I was fortunate to build up many programs for India, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet and even Pakistan. Besides looking for new opportunities and regions to travel, I had been guiding far more than 100 groups all over the place.

The last time I had been to Nepal was 2 years ago. The trip in July was planned before the Quake and there was never a question in our mind to cancel. Sure, when you believed the Media we were awaited by a completely “bombed out” country with enormous destruction. The social Media on top showed too many selfies of eager first aid pilgrims in front of chartered Helicopters and destroyed houses.

Fortunately “Shit storms” last for maximum a month. After that the media found a capsized boat in the China see with lot’s of casualties and the selfie pilgrims went back to the usual good time portrayals of food and drinks.

So when we arrived in Nepal, we were still a bit unsure of what to expect. The airport offered no surprise, the toilets still smelled the same, but the immigration was really fast and friendly. Outside, my friend Aman was waiting and off we went to Kantipur Templehouse, a small and cosy Boutique Hotel at the fringes of the popular Thamel district.

To be honest, 2 years ago, when I was here the city looked far worse. The administration was in the process of widening the roads and had bulldozed literally trough the living rooms of people in houses that were built too close to the road. Needless to say that the exercise included almost all the houses. When we left the airport, morning traffic was on the rise and the roads were busy and intact with little damage to be seen. The hotel was without and sign of damage and even the afternoon walk to Thamel showed little signs of the Quake.

The next morning we took a stroll trough the old town and there we saw the impact of the Quake. Some of the old mud brick and mud mortar structures had collapsed and others were supported by beams to hold them. Still the city was far from a standstill and people were busy removing debris and rebuilding. Shops were open and the day to day life had the city back in control.

Since we had come to take a Monsoon ride to Muktinath by Motorbike, we decided to leave the city behind and leave towards the West. So we chose two Motocross Bikes to be our rides for the next days and left the city.

Leaving the Valley on Motorbike riding on the “wrong” side of the road amidst heavy traffic is no small feat. Tackling black fume belching trucks working themselves up to the valley rim that engulf you with their smelly clouds has been one of Nepals less savoury trade marks since my first travel in 1983. But all in all we managed to get out of the valley into the clean, green country side. The road of course is loaded with trucks, no wonder, after all this is the most important supply route from and to India.

To our surprise the road is in great condition and no sign of a Quake or damage at all. We ride between trucks and buses up to Mugling, from where the road heads off towards Pokhara and traffic reduces to a trickle. Finally we turn into the small mountain road to Bandipur that winds itself up the slope, much like the mountain roads back home in Switzerland.

Bandipur

Bandipur is village life at its best. A very clean, small and prosperous village on a  ridge high above the plains one side and a splendid Himalayan view on the other. It is a must see place while traveling to Nepal. The Lodge, Gaun Ghar is simple, but has all one needs in a place like this. Great food, friendly staff, nice clean rooms with attached bathrooms and a great view of the Himalayas, if they don’t hide behind masses of clouds, like now during Monsoon time.

One can do nice walks to nearby villages, climb up to a temple and watch the life go by on the village road. Imagine, Bandipur is like Zermatt in Switzerland – a car free zone, which make a stay here even more pleasant         DSCF5958DSCF5962 - Version 2

Pokhara

After Bandipur the road took us to Pokhara. A pleasant drive with little traffic. We stayed at Lake side in a nice place called the “Mount Kailash Resort” ideal for parking the bikes as well. Taking a stroll in the evening we did not see any damage, no fallen or cracked buildings and the locals told us that there was no impact at all.

Well there was a huge impact after all. The place was deserted and people sat in front of empty shops, restaurants and resorts. Not even the customary Indian traveler was to be seen.   Media had completely forgotten to report that the West of Nepal was OK and so the place was almost turned into a ghost town. It felt really sad to see the place without the usual hustle and bustle of tourists from all over the world.

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Pokhara to Tatopani

Today was the first day where our wobbly tyres were supposed to find some more appropriate grip than tarmac roads dotted with pot holes. We hoped that the rains would give a chance to reach the Kali Gandaki without being drenched all the way. Hey the only rain we got was refreshing 🙂

Up to Beni the road was asphalted, if I had not taken a wrong turn at Kusma and finally we ended up at the wrong side of the river on a country road that would have been more appropriate for lessons in climbing. Well, adventure comes when you loose direction and finally we found our way back to the “highway” at Beni. Next time I make sure to carry some water …..DSCF5761DSCF5776DSCF5770

Shortly after Beni the road ended at the massive Rockslide that had blocked the valley some weeks before. The army had  already been sent out to evacuate the villages when the river found a new course before it turned into a massive flash flood. There was a mud bath , ehh sorry a mud path for the next 7 Kilometers to reach back on the original road. Just imagine the size of the Slide that required to make a 7 KM detour!

We reached Tatopani completely drained and dirty. The Annapurna Lodge was such a treat, clean and good food.

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Tatopani to Ghasa

I had done the Annapurna Trek 3 times before so todays aim was to reach behind the Monsoon. But it was not so easy. Monsoon time is after all a blessing for the farmers from above and a curse for the roads in general. Hmm, lets not call it road anymore, it was rather a washed out river bed with two tracks that were dotted with football size rocks, endless mud sections, water crossings and puddles that drowned have your bike. The road climbed over the next 20 km from 1100 Meter to more than 2000 Meter above sea level. It was steep, muddy and ran along the deepest gorge in the world. Riding this part was accompanied by constant adrenaline rushes when a football size boulder pushed your front wheel out of the track and a bit too close to the edge.

Then there was the Pupse waterfall with no bridge to cross. The locals stood grinning at the new found business when we arrived. We haggled the passage and then they simply pushed and half carried the bikes across the water fall dangerously close to the edge. Luckily we had opted for the Motocross versions with a very high sitting position. The tank did not fill up and we did not have to block petrol tubes and exhaust to cross the river.

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Finally we called it a day at Ghasa, a place that was once a major overnight halt for trekkers before the “road” came. Now people want to go around the Annapurna in one week and do half of the distance by four wheel driven cruisers that run the route after the rains have stopped. During this time of the year we were about the only “crazies” on the road. Today Ghasa lodges have no more business as most trekkers ride past the small town to reach Thorong La (5400 Meter) faster.

Ghasa to Jomsom

The next day we finally reached the rain barrier. The big massive mountains of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri block here the clouds and rains are more scarce. In Lete we drove into an alpine like climate with Pines and lots of fresh air, a big relief after the humidity of the Monsoon valleys. Nice place to stay for a couple of days to make a day trek or two.

After Lete the valley opens up and slowly turns into a desert. No more rains reach this place and we are finally on the same level as the Tibetan Plateau less than 100 Km from where we stand. The road becomes more of a road and easy to ride. Sibylle enjoys it so much that she decides to drop her bag right into the stream at the last river crossing. Luckily at a spot where the bag does not swim back to where we came from 🙂

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Jomsom is the hub for treks to Lo Manthang and it is also the only permanent airport in Mustang. We decide against Lo Manthang and the permit fee of 500$ for just 3 – 4 days. Instead we park the bikes and take a bus ride to Muktinath. It felt like a holiday! No helmet, no gear, no bike, just a camera, a bottle of water and a relaxing ride. The weather was fabulous and we had spectacular views of Nilgiri and Dhualagiri all the way.

Muktinath

Muktinath has changed since I was first here. Besides the small Shiva temple there are now buddhist Gompas and “Bakshish Babas” waiting for a donation. Somehow it has lost that special touch of simplicity and being truly spiritual. There is also a big tourist village now with plenty of rooms and lodges. But again, we were more or less alone.

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The drive back

The Himalayan roads force you often to see the same thing twice. The road back was the road we came from. Only downhill it went faster. So we reached Pokhara in two days.

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Mountain view

Hey this is great! Sit down and listen! We had Mountain view in Pokhara and Bandipur for the next 4 days! It was even better than during the regular season, because the clouds played with the peaks and the peaks with the clouds. Imagine we saw the mountains during the Monsoon! So we decided to stay in Bandipur for 3 nights,just enjoy the amazing country side.

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Helpful Nepal

What do you do when you have a flat tyre? You fix it at the next possible place and it costs you 1$. Yes 1$ to fix a tyre. What do you do when you have a second puncture and no more tube? Well, that is a problem, but not in Nepal. First they try everything possible to find a tube, which is not so easy for a Japanese made Motocross bike. And, if they do not find one, they jack up another bike, remove the tube and give it to you! Costs you 7$ including the tube. This was to help us out, so we could reach back to Kathmandu. The donor of the tyre agreed to wait till a new tube arrived the next day. This is what I love so much about Nepal. This incredible hospitality is just humbling and amazing. Thanks guys!

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The Kathmandu Valley

Back in Kathmandu we visited Bhaktapur, Changu Narayan, Gundu, Lalitpur, Bungamati and Bodnath. Gundu and Bungamati were on the plan because of a small project with we got involved in, to assist in some way with quake relief. But first the tourism view, the relief topic will de described in another blog.

Bhaktapur

There is damage and one part of the town has been severely destroyed. For guest’s however there is no reason not to visit the city. Most of the monuments are intact and the people are working very hard to remove rubble and rebuild the city. Some of the temples and monuments will take time to be restored and the impact will be visible for some time, but the city is back on track and the infrastructure intact.

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The main temple is damaged and the museum and buildings around it have all collapsed. They told us that it will take around 5 years to restore the complex.

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The Stupa has been damaged at the top but will be rebuilt by latest September. After that there will be no visible damage in the area.

DSCF6473DSCF6443Kathmandu and Lalitpur

These two cities face the same situation as Bhaktapur. There is visible damage at the old squares and tourist centers, but there is No reason not to go there. The grandeur of the cities is still there and visitors get a very good impression about culture and history of Nepal.

Chitwan and Everest

Even tough we had no time to go there we know that both areas are open and there are no infrastructure problems. Even the road to China is open again.

The impact

There are two major impacts on Nepal because of the Quake. First, the tragedy of the Quake that has been reported to the entire globe with selected gruesome pictures and exaggerations. Help organizations have sent Marketing teams and photographers to Nepal to paint the grimmest possible picture so that the can lure money out of people. The result of this negative marketing is much more severe than the damage of the Quake. Media reporting has stopped and the picture that we carry is that of a country heavily damaged. Today we carry the impression of Nepal like we do about Kabul.

Just today I received a mail from my friend Bharat who runs a travel company and 2 small lodges in Kathmandu and Bandipur.

This is what Bharat writes: 

It is going to take long time  for people to recover. I personally feel grateful that when the earthquake hit the country we were lucky to survive. As the time passes and I see my cost and there is nothing coming into the account now I start to realise how powerful the earthquake was. You see all places that I have been operating  have no guest at all. It has been more than 3 month and we have no business people are not booking the  holiday to Nepal. It is going to be very  hard to sustain. The autumn used to be the best season for Nepal. Spring is quite less and looks like we need to wait for minimum 6 months before we  start seeing  guest arriving to Nepal.

This is the far greater damage and bigger suffering for the country. Tour Operators have to step up and are called for a positive role to fulfill. Sadly, if I speak to some of them I hear nothing but moaning and groaning about the loss of business. Some of them even reduce their offering for Nepal, because they feel that it will not do well next season.

Conclusions

There is no reason NOT to visit Nepal. Actually there is every reason to do so. The entire infrastructure is working. There are no disease, no war and there is no danger! The people are sweet and helpful. The mountains are the same, so are the rivers, the hills and even the cities. Apart from some visible damage and in some areas people living in temporary housing there is a country unchanged waiting with its incredible natural beauty. This is the time to make travel plans to go and see the highest peaks, the endangered Rhinos, Elephants, etc.

Hey, just be the next person to write ad experience blog about one of the most amazing spots on the planet. Looking forward to read from you!

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