Christmas in Buddha’s Birthplace

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When you travel, you can’t always plan where you’ll be during special holidays, even less when you are traveling for a long period of time. This happened to us for Christmas (2014), when we found ourselves fortuitously in Lumbini, Nepal. This might not sound too weird until you start thinking about it, and realize that we were going to spend the birthday of Christ in Buddha’s birthplace. Talk about religious mixes!

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Lumbini itself is not a city but a holy site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site,  where many buddhist countries have constructed monasteries honoring Siddhartha Gautama’s birth in 563 BCE. The holy site is surrounded by a small town where you can find accommodation, food, and all the buddhist paraphernalia you have ever dreamed of! Lumbini is located very close to one of the main border crossings between India and Nepal, a town called Sonauli, and we shortly visited on our way to India. The weather was cold and foggy but we hired a rickshaw and were headed out for some religious sites!

nepal_lumbini_viaje_asia_2014-2015_img_7831_simon_uribe-conversNepali workers fixing the roof of the Thai monastery 

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Besides the  many temples, pagodas, and monasteries—all built in their country’s original architecture—the main attraction is the Mayadevi Temple marking the exact place of Buddha’s birth. There is a stone pilar commemorating the visit of the Indian emperor Ashoka that was erected close to 245 BCE, a holy pond where Buddha’s mother (Queen Mayadevi) took a bath before the birth, and a Bodhi Tree covered with prayer flags and surrounded by holy men in meditation.

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nepal_lumbini_viaje_asia_2014-2015_img_7837_simon_uribe-conversMayadevi Temple commemorates the place of Buddha’s birth

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nepal_lumbini_viaje_asia_2014-2015_img_7843_simon_uribe-conversBarefoot holy men meditating under the Bodhi Tree

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nepal_lumbini_viaje_asia_2014-2015_img_7869_simon_uribe-conversLos Monkeys surrounded by colors and prayers

Our time in Lumbini was short. We enjoyed it and braved the inclement weather but were ready to venture into a new land and start our Indian discovery. Our journey would take us from a holy birthplace to a city where death is most sacred: Varanasi.

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Holy Chitwan!

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Nepal is a country with a plethora of natural wonders. Yes the grandest, tallest, most mystical mountains in the world are located inside its borders, but within this small country, are subtropical lowlands filled with wild animals and breathtaking landscapes.

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Chitwan National Park is the oldest national park inside of Nepal, and boasts over 68 species of mammals, including the ever-elusive Bengal Tiger. The park also holds the highest population of sloth bears, around 200-250, as well as leopards, rhinos, and wild elephants. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is highly popular with tourists (that’s us!) who hire young locals to take them on 2-day walking safaris to seek out connections with nature, and if lucky, catching a glimpse of some magnificent creatures.

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The Elephant Breeding Center in Chitwan might be one of the only places to see elephants, unless they are wild, and in that case it’s almost better not to come across one because they are extremely aggressive and are known to charge villages and kill at least one local per year. Although the elephants bred at the center are primarily to be ‘riding’ elephants, it was fascinating to see them up close, especially watching the 40,000 muscles multitasking in their trunks!

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Day one of the safari began with a sunrise excursion to find a rhino, and a sleeping rhino we found (thank you for not waking)!

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The watch towers are located all around the park, and were lovely to climb up into for sunsets and animal spotting. Just don’t assume that a tiger can’t climb up there!

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We ‘tracked’ a tiger for 5 hours early morning of the second day. Really, how much can you track a tiger, if anything it was tracking us. Our guides were phenomenal when it came to searching for clues of where the animals had gone. Checking for urine, scratching posts, and taking time to connect with the noises of the forest helped us get very close to rhinos, a sloth bear, and even a tiger. The only problem was when we finally came in close contact to a rhino, they gave us sticks and rocks to defend ourselves, more likely to knock ourselves out if the rhino charged our way.

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nepal_chitwan_viaje_asia_2014-2015_img_7678_simon_uribe-conversHakuna Matata Pumba!

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We weren’t the only monkeys in the forest, if only we could move around as quickly as they did!

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To get back to the main city, we had to hop on the back of a construction truck because there was a bus strike and barely any buses were operating in the region. There was no way we could have seen any more animals as that truck rumbled through the trees, but it was quite the experience!

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Both of us enjoyed every moment of our Chitwan Safari. We were able to see many different animals, and spend time with our guides who were just as exhilarating to behold how they tracked the creatures. We still had one more stop as we traveled by land from Nepal to India, and just a few days after traversing in the jungle, we round up on Buddha’s doorstep.

Nepal and its Mountains

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Nepal is a country of mountains. In fact, three-fourths of the country are in the Himalayas, there are over 250 peaks higher than 6,000 meters (19,500 ft), and eight of the world’s highest peaks are here. It is no wonder then, that many of the people who visit Nepal come for trekking. Unfortunately for us, I was in no condition to trek due to the whole pinching-my-nerve-debacle in Thailand and we had to look at the mountains from a distance… But this wasn’t a problem because  our spirits were lifted immediately after arriving in Pokhara by seeing the views! The city has a beautiful lake where you can rent wooden boats to take you around and enjoy the Annapurna’s incredible peaks.

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Nepal_Pokhara_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_7061_Simon_Uribe-ConversThe closest we’ll get to Everest this time around

Even though Pokhara is Nepal’s second largest city, its calm streets and fresh air are a relieve from bustling Kathmandu. Cafés by the lake, temples, and small shops and their friendly owners  kept us busy for a few days of relaxation. The weather was cold but usually sunny and it was a delight to spend time in a new city.

Nepal_Pokhara_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6969_Simon_Uribe-ConversTracy braving the Himalayan cold 😉

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Since we were not trekking but still wanted to get closer to the peaks, we decided to splurge and take things to a much higher level, and I mean that literally. Pokhara is one of the most beautiful places to do paragliding and Tracy and I enjoyed our first flight! It was absolutely breathtaking.

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Pokhara was very good to us; we enjoyed the food, the people, and each other. And if that wasn’t enough,  our last evening blew our minds all over again!

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Nepal_Pokhara_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_7458_Simon_Uribe-ConversEven an early bus ride is enjoyable with this view!

Traveling to Nepal’s Past; Bhaktapur

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After a few days in busy Kathmandu, we decided to take a day trip to Bhaktapur—a nearby town filled with temples and ancient buildings. It was great, we walked on the cobbled streets going from temple to temple, watched traditional ceramics being made, and enjoyed delicious Juju Dhau, literally “king of yogurt”!

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Bhaktapur still conserves its traditional water ponds that were used as communal water sources by the community. You can see people bathing, washing their clothes, or worshiping a nearby statue.

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A day spent in the ancient city was a reminder of the living history of Nepal. It is filled with religious devotion, breathtaking architectural and artistic treasures, incredible food, and many friendly faces. We really liked it here, a much needed respite from the rickshaw and motorcycle filled capital. In Bhaktapur, life goes by slowly…

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Simon got a bit  obsessed with the ever-present chickens! 😉

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Beautiful Kathmandu

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Every trip to Nepal starts with Kathmandu’s airport, a small, overcrowded place where you’ll be waiting for your bags to come for what it seems an eternity. And of course, the trip is followed by a stay in Thamel—the tourist neighborhood, trekking agency central, and home to everything “Everest”—Everest Hotel, Everest Café, Everest Beer!

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One of the things you’ll first notice in Nepal is that you are constantly being “watched” by countless Buddha Eyes. They are virtually on every stupa (Buddhist shrine), door, flag, and t-shirt you encounter on the street. On the stupas, they are looking out in the four cardinal points symbolizing the omniscience of Buddha, and they do really transmit a sense of peace and wisdom. Simon, of course, could not stop taking photos of them!

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Nepal and momos are simply made for each other. Sticky and soft dough pockets filled with soul-satisfying meat and vegetables, smothered in a savory vegetable sauce with a little chili for heat, will make any wanderer, trekker or local a happy person. Wandering though the streets of Kathmandu would beckon us to buy 6 momos from the woman selling them out of a make shift steamer, and for the mere price of 70 Nepali rupees ($0.60USD). Momos represented a respite from the chaotic Thamel streets and the cold wind from Everest. Simon and I had a cold pretty much the entirety of our Nepali trip and momos were one of the main medicines to keep us going on to see more of the beauty in Nepal. During one of our trips to see Boudhanath, the countries’ largest stupa, we happened upon a small, local Nepali shop to buy tea and of course, momos. There was a familiar voice ordering to the side of our table.  I (Tracy) turned my head, not actually believing I could know the person in this obscure spot, but holy hell I did! In the far corner of shop sat a girl that was a regular at the restaurant I used to work at in Moscow, Idaho. Of course I had to go up to her, she didn’t really remember me but we talked for a few minutes about our mutual home on the other side of the world. Not only did momos make us feel comforted in a foreign country, but they also brought me home again.

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Kathmandu has many things to offer and is a great place to start experiencing Nepali culture. From the monkey temple (Swayambhunath) to Durbar Square (Kathmandu’s historical downtown) people are able to immerse themselves in Buddhism and Hinduism and to see how these two religions coexist with seemingly no difficulty.

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Visiting Nepal in December 2014 was a gift that both of us enjoyed in our own ways. Simon loves the mountains, and stupas. Tracy relished the generosity of Nepalis and we both obviously loved the food. After the devastating earthquake that killed more than 2,000 people in Nepal last April, we both truly treasure the time we spent navigating our way through thousands of Buddhist temples and the iconic engravings on each one. Sadly, so many artifacts and living ancient villages were destroyed. Nepalis must rebuild and accept the destruction so unfairly brought upon them. We ache for the woman who sold her momos on the street and the ancient ruins now decaying in a landfill, there is no replacement that can quickly be built. Nepalis are strong, resilient, and peaceful people, and an ancient one as well. Our hope for Nepal is that it can find peace within its borders by remembering the beauty of its history, but also the necessity of looking forward. The best way we have to help Nepal is to promote its beauty and encourage people to visit.

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Bye for now Kathmandu, hopefully we’ll be able to quote Cat Stevens in the near future: “Katmandu I’ll soon be seeing you…”