On Sunday morning, October 15th, I eagerly awaited the arrival of Lukas, Luzia, Agnes, Reimar, Sylvia, and Joannis at Kathmandu airport. I must admit, I was a bit nervous as I didn't know four of the participants. However, as soon as the group joined me in the minibus, I felt a sense of camaraderie and knew we were going to have a fantastic time together. After checking into the beautiful Heritage Hotel in Bakthapur and taking a short rest, we embarked on a captivating walk through the historic royal city. We explored numerous temples, palaces, and even visited the pottery square. To top it off, we indulged in juju dhau, a traditional yogurt made from buffalo milk, served in clay bowls at a local teahouse. As the sun began to set, we returned to the hotel where Meena, the director of the Mount View School, awaited us for a delightful dinner.
The following morning was dedicated to our visit to Mount View School and spending time with the Aasha children. Despite it being the first day of the Dashain vacation, Meena organized a memorable morning for us, complete with the children showcasing their beautiful dresses, singing the Nepalese anthem and other songs accompanied by the enchanting sounds of a guitar. We were showered with katas and malas, lucky scarves and flower wreaths. It was quite amusing as Luzia had previously mentioned her dislike for marigolds, yet she ended up receiving one of these flower wreaths to wear around her neck.
Our Aasha children were overjoyed to receive letters from their godparents and traditional Swiss chocolate bars. The emotions ran high, and everyone was grateful for the visit from our group of sponsors all the way from Switzerland. It truly was an indescribably beautiful morning.
Meena, who not only serves as the principal but also is a talented cook, invited us to her home afterward for a delicious dhalbhat. The atmosphere was sensational, and we all felt right at home. After a brief return to the hotel, we embarked on another sightseeing adventure, heading to Swayambunath, also known as the Monkey Temple. This sacred place holds great significance for both Buddhists and Hindus in Nepal. I had warned the group about the monkeys, but their aggressiveness took us by surprise. Sylvia had a close encounter when a monkey climbed on her and attempted to snatch her bag. After a brief struggle, she remembered there was an apple inside the bag, which the monkey eagerly tried to take. This led to a fierce fight among the monkeys, all vying for the fruit. Once Sylvia recovered from the fright, we were able to explore and appreciate the magnificent temple complex.
We descended the 365 steps and, after a short cab ride, found ourselves in Thamel, the vibrant tourist district of Kathmandu. We enjoyed a fantastic dinner at the Third Eye Restaurant, accompanied by Amrit, a dear friend of mine and the trekking route planner for Luzia and Lukas.
Tuesday was dedicated to a full day of sightseeing as we visited two Newari villages near Kathmandu. The Newari people are the indigenous inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley. Unfortunately, our tour guide did not meet our expectations and lacked the extensive knowledge we had hoped for. Our first stop was Khokana, a village renowned for its mustard oil production since ancient times. Thanks to Lukas, he led the group to an intriguing factory where mustard oil is still produced using traditional methods. Kokhana holds historical significance as it was the first town in Nepal to receive electricity in 1911 AD during the rule of Rana Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher. Bungamati, another Newari village with a medieval charm dating back to the 16th century, was our next destination. It is situated on a hill and houses an important temple dedicated to Rato Machhendranath, the patron god of Patan.
And then we drove to Patan, one of the three ancient royal cities of the Kathmandu Valley. After a relaxed lunch, we visited the impressive temple complex and the fascinating museum.
Our next stop was Pashupatinath, where we wanted to experience the unique atmosphere at sunset. This sacred site is where Hindus perform cremations on the banks of the Bagmati River and scatter the ashes into the river. We were able to observe these ceremonies from the opposite side of the river. The sight of the smoke spreading throughout the temple complex, casting a special light on the important Shiva temple, made us reflect on life and death. Despite being confronted with mortality, we later found solace and gratitude as we shared a peaceful dinner at the hotel.
After a delightful breakfast, we checked out of the hotel and a minibus took us first to Boudhanath and then to Nagarkot. The Boudhanath Stupa, also known as Boudha, is a remarkable Buddhist temple complex and one of the capital's most iconic landmarks. Standing at a height of 36 meters, it is one of the largest stupas in the world. The prominent Buddha eyes gaze into the distance in all four directions, symbolizing wisdom.
Since 1959, the Tibetan community has also settled in this part of the city, resulting in the construction of over 50 gompas (Tibetan monasteries). The Boudhanath Stupa is considered a peaceful sanctuary amidst the bustling city, and personally, it is my favorite place to unwind and find inspiration and energy.
After an interesting drive through the rice fields of Bakthapur, we arrived at Changu Narayan in the afternoon, one of Nepal's oldest temples. The temple complex had suffered significant damage during the 2015 earthquake, but the main temple dedicated to Shiva now shone brightly with vibrant colors. As someone who had visited the temple complex multiple times before, these colors initially felt unfamiliar, but eventually, I grew accustomed to this new appearance. Some members of our group explored the intriguing little museum, which showcased various traditional customs. Afterwards, we indulged in black masala tea and sel roti, a delicious deep-fried, ring-shaped sweet made from rice flour, at a cozy teahouse.
From there, our driver took us to Nagarkot, where our main objective was to witness the sunrise the following morning. As the altitude reached 2000 meters, the late afternoon became noticeably cooler, prompting us to dress a bit warmer. At dinner, we had a delightful surprise for Agnes. Although her birthday had gone unnoticed on Sunday, we surprised her with a "Black Forest" birthday cake.
The next morning, we woke up at 5:45 am. Luzia and I enjoyed the sunrise from our balcony, while others admired the breathtaking 7000 to 8000-meter peaks from the hotel terrace. Some of our group members decided to sleep through it. Luckily, the weather was on our side, allowing us to witness the majestic red glow of the mountain peaks. It felt almost mystical, with a sea of fog below and the sun turning the white peaks into a reddish hue. Perhaps even Mount Everest was displaying its radiant beauty! It was truly awe-inspiring.
After a delightful breakfast against the backdrop of the mountains, we checked out of the hotel. Amrit arrived to pick us up, and we boarded the minibus that took us to a charming village. According to legend, this was the place where God Shiva brought the body of his beloved wife, Parvathi. The temple complex was nestled by a river, creating a serene setting.
We then headed to the airport for our flight to Pokhara, which was scheduled to depart shortly after noon. Despite a slight delay, which is quite common in Nepal, we landed in Pokhara on Thursday, October 19. Narayan Baral warmly greeted us at the airport, placing a traditional kata around our necks. Together, we made our way to the beautiful Hotel Barahi located by the lakeside. I settled into my familiar room at Narayan's family place. In the evening, we gathered for dinner at the Moondance Restaurant, while Sylvia and Joannis ventured out to explore Lakeside and dine elsewhere.
The following morning was dedicated to our project, the Aasha Vocational and Training Center. As we arrived at the entrance, we were warmly welcomed by the students, Kamala (the school secretary), and Kanchi (the ward). They applied a tikka, a red dot made of red powder mixed with water and rice, on our foreheads. In Nepalese Hindu tradition, this is done during religious and cultural activities, as well as when starting a new job or celebrating birthdays. It is considered a symbol of good luck and protection. We were also adorned with katas and malas around our necks.
During our visit, we had the opportunity to explore the various courses offered at the center, including electrician, tailoring, beautician, and baker. Narayan also provided us with an insightful and impressive overview of the school's work, highlighting both the achievements and the challenges they face, particularly in the agricultural sector and the need for more training facilities. Sylvia was so impressed by the beauticians that she decided to have her makeup done.
Afterwards, we enjoyed tea and cake, baked by the talented bakers at the center. The bag-making apprentices had set up a table displaying their handmade bags, and we couldn't resist purchasing a few pieces. We left the school filled with enthusiasm for our work.
In the afternoon, we had the opportunity to visit another project. Bishnu, the coordinator of this women's empowerment initiative by UniCon Nepal, accompanied us on the one-hour drive to Ramkot, Fedikhola. HOPE had generously donated funds to support this project, located in a poor and remote village, aiming to provide women with opportunities for learning and gaining independence and self-confidence. Once again, we were greeted with tikka and beautiful flower malas, and after speeches from both sides, the women proudly showcased the bags they had sewn. As a token of appreciation, we were each presented with a bag as a gift. We also had the chance to shop for more bags.
We proceeded to visit the children's center in the village, a place where children can go before and after school for supervised homework sessions or simply to engage in play. It was truly heartwarming to witness the children's warm welcome, starting with the Nepalese national anthem followed by a song about their village. Their bright eyes filled with joy as we handed them chocolate bars, leaving a lasting impression on us.
After enjoying a cup of tea at a picturesque teahouse, we embarked on our journey back to Pokhara. However, shortly after leaving the village, we made an unexpected stop. As it was Dashain, a festive occasion, a swing and a small wooden ferris wheel had been set up in a meadow. We indulged in ten delightful minutes of fun, momentarily reliving the carefree spirit of childhood.
Later in the morning of the following day, which was a Saturday, we drove to Armala, a small village primarily dependent on agriculture. There, we had the opportunity to witness the daily life of a local family. The abundance of flowers, plants, trees, and fields was truly delightful. We were fortunate to observe my friends' family handcrafting butter, and we even had the chance to taste it. Additionally, each of us received a jar of fresh homemade yogurt.
From there, we continued our journey to Dhampus, where I had arranged a gathering for the entire Baral clan. We were a group of forty, including many children. After settling into our rooms at the beautiful Pinnacle guesthouse and admiring the breathtaking Annapurna massif and fishtail peaks amidst the clouds, the festivities began. It turned out to be a joyous evening filled with BBQ food, dancing, singing, engaging discussions, and even a birthday celebration for Shiva, Narayan's brother.
The next morning, we woke up early to witness the marvelous sunrise over the Annapurna range. The mountains glowed in a vibrant red, creating a captivating start to the day. Following breakfast, most of us embarked on a hike to Australian Camp, which offered an even more spectacular view of the majestic eight-thousanders. After basking in the sun and the beauty of the mountains, we enjoyed a traditional Nepali meal called dhalbhat at the guesthouse before returning to Pokhara.
On our way back, we encountered large herds of mountain goats being brought down from Mustang for sale. These goats would later be used for the traditional Dashain festival, where each family slaughters at least one goat to prepare a goat meat curry for the obligatory dhalbhat meal. The thought of their fate saddened me. Once back in Pokhara, the group spent a relaxing afternoon by the pool.
Today is Monday, October 23, and our itinerary includes a visit to the Tibetan refugee camp Tashi Palkhiel/Hemja. We decided to use public transportation for this excursion. We boarded a minibus at Zero Kilometer, and luckily, we all managed to find seats despite the overcrowding. It was quite an experience for everyone. Upon reaching the camp, we were warmly greeted by Yangchen, my friend since my first visit to the camp in 2003. She took us to her home, where we were served special Tibetan tea in the garden. Tibetan tea, made from black tea, butter, and salt, may appear more like a savory broth to us. The taste requires some getting used to, but personally, I love this tea, especially after a tiring day of trekking as it replenishes energy.
Feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, we eagerly participated in a momo-making session. Yangchen, her brother Karma, and her mother taught us the art of making Tibetan momos. The dough consisted of flour and water, while the filling comprised hand-chopped buffalo meat, salt, chopped onions, ginger, garlic, fresh coriander leaves, and chili powder. A little water was added to achieve the desired consistency. Filling and shaping the momos proved to be a challenging task, but we quickly became adept, and the end result was quite respectable. Despite not achieving perfection, the atmosphere was delightful, and laughter filled the air. After steaming the momos in a pot for about twenty minutes, we joyfully savored them. They were served with soup, tomato chutney, and sliced cucumber and carrots. To accompany the meal, we enjoyed apple juice made from Mustang apples at the camp's own juice factory. Following this cozy gathering, we proceeded to the monastery to witness the monks' prayers and chants. Karma guided us to a quiet spot where we sat in meditation, allowing our thoughts to wander freely. Then the time came to bid farewell to Yangchen and her family, and a cab took us back to my home.
The Baral family invited us for a delightful dinner, complete with wine, beer, and whisky. The evening ended on a joyful note. On Tuesday, October 24, we celebrated the tenth and most significant day of the Dashain festival. This day is dedicated to the younger generation receiving blessings from their grandparents, parents, and older siblings, wishing them a happy and prosperous life. These blessings are bestowed in the form of tikkas, which are round red dots, also known as the "third eye." The tikka paste, made from a mixture of barley grains, yogurt, and red color, is applied to the foreheads of the younger family members. Additionally, young ears of rice and marigold flowers are placed on their heads. The women adorned themselves in beautiful saris, while the girls wore their most exquisite kurta salwar outfits.
At ten o'clock, I eagerly awaited Luzia, Lukas, Agnes, Reimar, Sylvia, and Joannis to participate in the tikka placement ritual, which had to be done precisely at 10:51 am. Everyone gathered, and the grandfather commenced the ritual. We were also blessed, and shortly after, we had a productive photo shoot followed by a traditional meal of dalbhat with goat meat curry.
The afternoon was free, so the group explored some of the attractions around Pokhara and enjoyed the lakeside.
The next morning, it was time to bid farewell to Pokhara. After checking out, we embarked on a seven-hour journey to Lumbini, accompanied by Narayan. The drive took us through the breathtaking Pokhara valley, with its well-tended terraced fields, rivers, streams, green valleys, rocky gorges, farmland, and charming Nepali villages. Along the way, we caught a glimpse of the sacred Kali Gandaki River, originating from Mustang and forming the world's deepest gorge before merging with the Ganges in India. After a lunch break, we continued south, passing through captivating green mountains and valleys until we reached the Nepalese plain, known as the Terai. Just before sunset, we arrived at our hotel in Lumbini, the Buddha Maya Garden Hotel. After settling into our rooms, we gathered for a delicious dinner at the hotel, followed by a friendly game of cards to end the evening.
The next morning, two rickshaws picked us up at 9:15 am, and our guide provided us with an overview of the sights we would be visiting. Lumbini, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, who later became known as Lord Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. Often referred to as "the light of Asia," Lumbini exudes a spiritual ambiance throughout its 4.8 km area. It is home to numerous monasteries built by different Buddhist countries, each showcasing their unique national styles. Other notable attractions include the sacred Bodhi tree, an ancient bathing pond, the famous Ashokan pillar, and the Mayadevi temple. The rickshaws first took us to the World Peace Pagoda, one of eighty such Shanti Stupas around the world. These pagodas were constructed as symbols of peace in various Japanese cities, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which tragically witnessed the devastating impact of atomic bombs during the Second World War, claiming the lives of over 150,000 people, mostly civilians.
We then visited several monasteries. The German monastery captivates with its beautiful garden, where you can learn about the story of Siddhartha (or Gautam Buddha) through well-depicted figures. At the end of the canal in the Lumbini garden, you will find the eternal flame of peace. This flame symbolizes the spreading of peace for world peace.
Our main destination, the sacred spiritual site of Mayadevi Temple, is not far from there. It is believed that Buddha was born there in 623 BC. Legend has it that the pond you see there is where Prince Siddhartha took his cleansing bath, just like his mother Maya Devi shortly before his birth. Prayer flags hang from the branches, gently swaying in the wind, while devotees sit below in deep meditation. For pilgrims who have made the long journey here, this is a moment they have been working towards. We visited this site again after sunset, experiencing a truly spiritual atmosphere with candles, lights, meditating pilgrims, and monks.
Our last evening together has already arrived. The next morning, the group splits up. I fly to Kathmandu with Agnes, Reimar, Sylvia, and Joannis, while Luzia and Lukas drive back to Pokhara to start their trek.
In Kathmandu, we plan to visit Durbar Square on Friday afternoon. But first, we will relax at the beautiful swimming pool of the Shanker Hotel. On our last evening, we take a walk from Durbar Square through the lively Old Kathmandu district to Thamel, where we enjoy good food and conversation at the Third Eye Restaurant.
Shortly after midday on Saturday, it's time to say goodbye. It was difficult for all of us. The past two weeks were intense and unforgettable, and we will cherish the memories of our time together. I am thrilled that our projects were met with enthusiasm.
Sylvia and Ioannis have already set up an online sales platform for T-Shirts4HOPE, with Sylvia designing the shirts herself, incorporating typical Nepalese designs. Now we hope for successful sales. I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to Luzia, Agnes, Reimar, Sylvia, Ioannis, and Lukas. You were all amazing! We shared many experiences and made new friends.
I also want to thank all my friends in Nepal for the excellent organization. Especially to Meena Maharjan, Binod Neupane and Bishnu, Yangchen and Narayan Baral for making the moments unforgettable.
Our trip from October 15 to 27, 2023 was unique!
written by Barbara Roniger, president