Lumbini: Buddhism and bicycles

Before we begin, a cheater’s guide to Lumbini, compiled from the Internet as well as a handy pamphlet I currently have sitting on my lap.

Lumbini is in the southern-most part of Nepal, mere kilometres from the border with India. The village attained its claim to fame millenniums ago, when Prince Siddhartha was born in the shade of a local Bodhi tree. Prince Siddhartha is probably better known by his other name: Lord Buddha, and his eventual enlightenment represented the advent of Buddhism as we know it today. Nowadays, Lumbini is one of the holiest pilgrimage sites for Buddhists world over, and attracts thousands of Buddhists and tourists every year.

Cleaning time: The giant Buddha statue at the entrance to the World Heritage Site.
Cleaning time: The giant Buddha statue at the entrance to the World Heritage Site.

For me, Lumbini came in equal parts Buddhism and bicycles. Just in front of the strip of hotels and guest houses near the bus park in Lumbini are a handful of bicycle rental shops. Both Marlon and I had read that the best way to explore the flat grounds of Lumbini were from the saddle of a bike. Not surprisingly, a Dutch girl and a Canadian bicycle-enthusiast were 100 per cent okay with. After all, the last time I rode a bike was in the fall, and I was dying to get back behind the handlebars of a two-wheeled steed. Walking up to one of the bicycle shops, we were immediately accosted by two young boys, both of whom looked to be about 12-years-old. They were from competing shops right next to one another. But puberty does not a good bike rental salesman make, and these preteens jibed back and forth with expert skill, battling for our business. Eventually, we settled on two pink cruisers, one from each shop. The boys looked satisfied, and after giving the brakes a quick test, we peddled off to explore.

Bike gang.
Bike gang.

Part of Lumbini rests within a World Heritage Site in the centre of the town. That site is circled by a dusty brick pathway, containing large ponds that look like moats around the main complex. This path is the closest thing I’ve seen to bike path in Nepal (mountain bike trails excluded), and I joyously rode along it, revelling in the warm afternoon sun. From the path you can see the Maya Devi Temple from almost every angle. The temple is a tidy white building, the walls of which enclose the remains of former temple foundations, some as old as the 6th and 7th Century B.C.

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The Maya Devi Temple is the famed birthplace of the Buddha. Inside, a marker stone has been framed in plexiglass, its presence representing the exact spot where his birth is said to have taken place. I wait in line to pay tribute to the spot, and notice I’m standing behind half a dozen or so people, from all different nationalities, pushing to do the same.

It’s then that I really grasp the significance of Lumbini and the importance of this specific place. Lumbini is a place of origin. Like Jerusalem for Christians or Mecca for Muslims, a visit to Lumbini means going back to the place where it all began – a place whose past events have the influence to shape lifetimes of beliefs. That was something pretty powerful, and I tried to look at the rest of the afternoon through that lens. A tourist stop for us, a pilgrimage for others.

Leaving the Maya Devi Temple, Marlon and I wandered through the peaceful grass gardens of the site, padding around softly in our socked feet. At the start of the garden is The Puskarini, the pond where Maya Devi bathed before giving birth to the Buddha. I can feel my bones creak and ache as old men and women kneel from the terraced steps to splash their heads with the holy waters.

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Just a little further away is a tall tree that has a small temple carved into the base of its trunk. The bark is orange and red from the powder used for puja, and marigold petals cling to the tiny idol inside. Hanging from this tree – and every other tree in the immediate area – are more strings of prayer flags than I have ever seen. They’re tangled in the branches amongst the leaves, and the red, blue, yellow, green and white squares of polyester and cotton form a spectacular rainbow hanging above our heads. Burning incense tingles my nostrils as I take a deep, relaxed breath.

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The World Heritage Site in Lumbini was really just the start of our explorations. Surrounding Maya Devi and that circular brick pathway sit the east and west monastic zones. Within these zones are more than 15 monasteries, representing countries from all over the world. From Thailand to Austria, China to Sri Lanka, all have constructed centres in which people can base their meditation. I was surprised by the obvious showiness and extravagance of the buildings, given the principle of Buddhism to separate life from material objects. Regardless of this anomaly, I had a great time biking around the different monastery sites, admiring the uniqueness and beauty of each.

German monastery and grounds - by far the most impressive.
German monastery and grounds – by far the most impressive.

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The rest of the afternoon was spent blissfully cycling around the rest of Lumbini. A kilometre-long central canal connects the World Heritage Site and the monastic zones to the new Lumbini Village, and that became our bike route of choice.

This is the Lumbini Museum, that sits at one far end of the central canal. Architecturally, it was love at first sight.
This is the Lumbini Museum, that sits at one far end of the central canal. Architecturally, it was love at first sight.

Eventually the sun started to set over the flat fields of the Terai, a glowing ball of red repelling against the approaching dark sky. Biking at dusk remains one of my very favourite things.

I wouldn’t say I was feeling enlightened after my afternoon exploring Lumbini, but I sure was damn happy. For now, that works for me.

Splish splash, I was taking a bath (now with more elephants!)

In a trip that’s been made up of daily adventures, new lessons, and wild explorations, I know that the morning of January 8 will stand out as a highlight.

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The morning started off slowly. In anticipation that today’s weather would be chillier and misty, a la day of the jungle walk, Marlon and I bundled up. I walked out of our room wearing a long sleeve shirt, windbreaker, scarf, and my trusty navy cargo pants. First on the agenda for the day was to go watch elephant bath time, the daily ritual in which half a dozen elephants are scrubbed down on the shores of Sauraha’s Rapti River. We had both brought swimsuits in anticipation of having the chance to get involved in said elephant bathing, but opted to leave them off. It was winter, and we had accepted our role as passive observers in the bath time of the jungle giants.

Walking down the dirt road to the river, Marlon and I ended up behind two elephants and their mahouts (caretakers). One of the mahouts looked down at us from his cushion perch atop the elephant, and asked if we wanted to go for a ride. “Uh, OF COURSE,” we both responded, without even having to look to each other for assurance (because really, how often do you get a chance to ride on an elephant?!).

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Marlon got on first, and after lifting her high into the air, the elephant continued padding her way down to the riverbank. I walked behind, documenting everything on my camera, and in turn walking through a jet stream of elephant fart that was fired in my immediate direction. Outside the release of gas, the movements of an elephant are beautiful. Seeing its muscles stretch and contract as its legs moved forward, I’m once again blown away by the phenomenal creatures that live on this planet.

Down at the beach side, Marlon hopped off, and I climbed on (a process about as ladylike as trying to get back into a kayak in the middle of a lake), grabbing onto the rope around the elephant’s neck, the one that loosely served as the rein for the mahout. I was surprised by the roughness of the elephant’s hide, thick skin like nothing I’ve ever touched before. Protruding from that skin were tiny, thin hairs, which prickled and tickled my legs. The elephant’s ears flapped against my calves.

So excited!!!
So excited!!!

When I got down, I was already on a first-time-on-an-elephant high. The mahout looked at Marlon and I. “Want to bathe the elephant?” he asked. This is where the brief moment of hesitation got us, considering how inappropriately dressed we were for such a job. But once again, I repeat my earlier sentiments: how often do you have the chance to ride an elephant, not to mention help bathe one? So we said yes, and threw down our purses, jackets, shoes, and cameras in anticipation for a soaking good time. Clothes dry and sand can be showered off, but the impulsive excitement of that moment is one not easily duplicated.

Marlon and I again climbed onto the elephant’s back*, and we lumbered into the shallow shores of the Rapti River. The caretaker splashed Ellie a few times, before she dropped into the water and rolled onto one side, a movement neither Marlon nor I was expecting. Down we tumbled into the warm waters of the Terai, with a splash that made us wonder how we ever thought we might get out of this experience even partially dry.

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See that splash? That is us.

We laughed and laughed, thrilled and soaked to the bone. Climbing back on Ellie, the caretaker yelled out a phrase in Nepali, and before we knew it she had filled her trunk with water and was using some of the 40,000 muscles (!!) to send a noseful of water in our direction. I giggled like an overjoyed child, and even the constant bombardment of water couldn’t wash the smile off my face (though it tried, really, really hard). Hey, it beats coffee when it comes to waking up in the morning.

After we had our bath on the back of Ellie, she lay down in the water and we used sponges and river water to give her a proper clean off.

All washed up
All washed up

I’ll let the photos illustrate the rest of bath time. I need to go and check if my pants are dry yet.

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Marlon looking badass
Marlon looking badass

*The elephant will hereby be known as “Ellie,” as Marlon and I have begun using alliterations to name our animal friends, including (but not limited to) Sally the Salamander and Carmen the Cockroach.

The space between two places

This post is inspired by the afternoon I spent at the Tibetan border in the north part of Langtang National Park. The space between two places is that of the Bhote Kosi river, the body of water currently separating Nepal from Tibet. That space is in the midst of being closed, and a new, Chinese-funded bridge is slowly stretching its trestles across the river. Its completion will mark the start of a new over-ground link between China and India.

I was so struck by this construction project, and its possible implications, that I scribbled this post in my Moleskine shortly after seeing it.

Being in Nepal has provided a thousand-and-one answers to the question I was asked countless times before I left Canada: “so, why Nepal?” But before I was provided those insights, there were a few reasons I had come up with in my mind. One of them was Nepal’s crucial positioning smack between China and India, two of the fastest developing countries in the world.

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Amidst the rubble of a construction zone, a Nepali flag marks ones transition from Tibet into Nepal.

Soon to be connecting those two places is a road: a new, Chinese-constructed highway that spits out of Tibet and runs along the Bhote Kosi river, It runs past the homes of Tibetan refugees, and will connect the country with another road that leads deep through the heart of Nepal, branching off further still onto roads that eventually lead to India.

The current suspension bridge connecting Nepal and Tibet (left); a traditional Tamang village, just down road from the new bridge (right)
The current suspension bridge connecting Nepal and Tibet (left); a traditional Tamang village, just down road from the new bridge (right)

Now, the final stage in that project is being completed. The space between two places is soon to be no more. Another new piece of Chinese infrastructure is being constructed, this time in the form of a stoic concrete building and bridge, one that will link the new highway with Tibet, once and for all.

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The contrast between the border sides is dramatic. On the Nepali side, it’s a construction zone. Colourful Tata trucks line the road, and construction workers in red helmets hammer away industriously. The place where this is all happening is particularly significant in the sense that it was somewhere important before this construction zone dictated it as so. It’s called Rasuwa, and it’s a century-old historical site representing the remains of what was once a defence fort when Nepal and Tibet weren’t so close. Now it’s a meeting of old and new in the most literal sense. The original stone walls of Rasuwa are overshadowed by the cold structures on the other side of the Bhote Kosi.

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I’m perturbed by what all this could mean for Nepal. Certainly it means more income, as drivers will be required to transport goods, and that will likely create all sorts of spin-off for secondary businesses here. But still, historical heritage is being destroyed on a whim for the construction of this bridge – what does that mean in terms of future negligence? To strike the essential balance between progress and past, is anyone asking these questions?

Maybe I’m wrong to be bothered so much by this space between two places. This space that is getting smaller, in this world that keeps connecting, without much thought for how and why and at what cost.

High flyer: Paragliding in Pokhara

If you look high over the hills to the north of Pokhara, you see what appear to be dozens of birds of prey. Swooping and drifting in the wind, they’re like vultures circling the terrain below. It’s only upon closer inspection you notice the colourful parachutes and arched openness of what can only be a group of paragliders.

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On Monday morning, one of them was me.

Here I am! This was technically taken after landing, but you get the gist of it..
Here I am! This was technically taken after landing, but you get the gist of it..

I’d read about paragliding opportunities all over Nepal, but Pokhara seemed like the right place at the right time. I’d met a handful of fellow travellers who had paraglided here, and they had all told me about the awesome feeling that comes with soaring amongst the Annapurna Himalayan Range. It doesn’t hurt that Pokhara is listed as one of the best places on the planet to paraglide, either.

So I signed up for flight: December 30 at 11:30 a.m. Nearing the end of 2013, I figured it was good to round off the year with a new and exciting experience.

At shortly after 11 a.m. that day, myself and three other paragliders made our way up to the launching area in the back of a large jeep. The views of the mountains and down onto the sprawling reaches of Pokhara were stunning from the open back of the jeep, and I couldn’t wait to see the same sights from thousands of feet, floating freely through the Himalayan thermals.

One of my fellow paragliders, just before I took off
One of my fellow paragliders, just before I took off

The paragliding trips all take off from the town of Sarangkot, 1,450 metres up. Each company has its own private take off spot, each lined up next to one another along the steep mountainside.

Sunrise Paragliding's take off area.
Sunrise Paragliding’s take off area.

My pilot, Laxman, got me buckled into the harness.

Laxman! He has been paragliding for seven years and goes up with tourists three times a day.
Laxman! He has been paragliding for seven years and goes up with tourists three times a day.

He then instructed me how to take off: walk, walk, walk, ruuuuuuuun! The actual take off process really didn’t last that long, and is not a hugely fear-inducing activity. Prior to my trip, I had pictured something more like the Lukla airport: a steep runway area, a fast run and a leap off a cliff. This was much more tame. After a few seconds, the wind takes over, and filled our creamsicle-coloured parachute, carrying Laxman and I up off the ground.

Soon we were high above the take off area, my feet dangling beneath my seat in the harness.

Long way down!
Long way down!

The view was spectacular. On one side, breathtaking views of the Annapurna Range: Dhaulagiri, Machapuchare and Annapurna II, lined up across the horizon, their sides only slightly obscured by a few wisps of cumulus cloud. The proximity of Pokhara to such clear Himalayan views is impressive and humbling: a toy-sized city stretched out beneath their magnitude. In the other direction was the ravishing blue of the Phewa Tal, a breeze creating a surface of sparkling diamonds. The silhouette of the World Peace Pagoda on the distant hillside; the city; the distinctive plots of nearby homes and farms. All was visible with such a sharp clarity.

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The actual experience of paragliding involves a series of soft turns, following the air flow as it pushes you up and gently drives you down. The movements of the paraglider (thanks to Laxman’s expertise) are graceful and calculated.

Marlon had lent me her small point and shoot camera (with wrist strap!) for the ride, and I while up in the air I practiced the ancient Nepalese art form of the “selfie.” Maybe you’ve heard of it?

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Overall, an incredible experience, and another check off my bucket list!

Cross-country bus adventures

Until travelling to Nepal, my token bus story always involved a 17-year-old me and an overextended bathroom break at a gas station in the middle of Norway. Today I find myself with a whole slew of new stories, ones to laugh at in the moment and remember fondly once the intended destination is reached.

Please allow me to share my most recent two:

The road to Syabrubesi

It turns out my overnight bus ride from Kathmandu to Janakpur was not the most eventful, dually fearsome and exciting trip I would be having during my time in Nepal.

Syabrubesi is the start point of the Tamang Heritage Trail, that trek I did just before Christmas. When I read in Lonely Planet that the bus ride from Kathmandu to the northern town was the worst part of the Langtang region treks, I knew I was in for a treat. At just over 120 kilometres in distance, the bus ride takes a whopping seven hours (that’s just a shade over 17 km/hr, on the super deluxe speedy bus, might I add) from start to finish. But I was ready. Armed with a breakfast of rice crackers and a jar of peanut butter (guilty creature comfort), I settled into my spot in the seat behind the driver. We started off through the early morning smog, up and out of Kathmandu into the mountains. I turned my attention to admire the fading views of the valley, and twisted the lid back onto my peanut butter jar.

WHAM! SMASH!

I watched in seemingly slow motion as the driver’s door swung open as we banked around one of the first sharp turns in the road. The door shifted violently in its hinges and slammed into my windows, a set of two sliding glass panes, a thick, translucent blue.

Glass that I shook off my lap onto the floor.
Glass that I shook off my lap onto the floor.

There was a moment of shocked, unblinking silence. Then the window shattered, splaying shards of glass onto my chest, arms and lap. I stared down. A moment later, I started to laugh, shaking my head at the absurdity of the situation. Everyone was trying to figure out what had happened as I stood up and shook the glass off my pants, brushing it onto the floor as thin pieces poked at my knuckles and thighs. The driver’s second man (you’ll find out about him in a second) picked up my chair cushion and shook it out the window, a pile of fresh glass pooled onto the pavement. If Nepal has taught me anything, it’s that you kind of just need to play along with the situation at hand. This was one of those “what can you do?” moments. Anyways, I already had a story from the trek, and I hadn’t even started it yet.

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Airy window breeze – thanks, missing window!

After that initial incident, the bus ride to Syabrubesi was unbelievably beautiful. The road rounded mountains and terraced fields, offering dazzling panoramic views of an agrarian Nepal and the oncoming Himalayas.

At around the five-hour mark in the bus ride, the road failed to be a road.

Ravished by landslides, the area to the right of the road was piles of smashed boulders and gravel, the mountain wiped clean in a dirty mess. On the left side of the bus, an epic cliff, one that would have sent the fuselage of our bus barrelling down hundreds of metres.

While photos cannot illustrate the quality of the road, here's an attempt. An iPhone-sticking-out-the-bus-window shot.
While photos cannot illustrate the quality of the road, here’s an attempt. An iPhone-sticking-out-the-bus-window shot.

It’s at this point that I see the value in the driver’s second man. His torso sticks out the open bus door. At this point in the journey, it is his job to inform the driver how much space he has before the bus drives off the cliff. He hits the side of the bus rhythmically, a sound that has become synonymous with the idea of “okay, good to go!” I found myself pressing my eyes shut, meditating on the idea of our bus successfully making the pass.

A few lines written in my notebook at around this time: It’s an exercise in trust. You need to work on the assumption that the driver of the bus has the same will to live as you. The road is like a bucking bull, slowly, but determinedly trying to throw us off its back.

Potholes ahead.
Potholes ahead.

Pulling into Syabrubesi, I step onto solid ground, thankful the motion sickness that afflicted my childhood has since passed. An adventure-and-a-half!

Kathmandu to Pokhara

By this point, I should have known that it’s impossible (for me? In general?) to take a bus in Nepal without incident. Still, the 206 kilometre, eight-hour journey to Pokhara started off with hopeful optimism and a breakfast of peanut butter spread on freshly baked buns, a bespeckling of crumbs accompanying Marlon and I on the journey.

Things were uneventful for the first six hours. The switchbacks out of the Kathmandu Valley seemed tame in comparison to the road to Syabrubesi (it’s amazing how base level standards adjust as you travel through a country). I managed a few hours of sleep as the bus rocked back and forth at a leisurely pace along the highway strip next to the Trisuli River. We were just rolling out of our third stop of the bus ride when the driver slammed on the brakes. Everyone fell forward in their chairs. I yanked out my headphones and sat up straight to try and see what was going on. The bus started moving again, slower than before. We pulled over once, went a few metres, and pulled over again.

Our broken down bus
Our broken down bus

Now I sit near the back of the bus as it lurches forward onto the side of the road, a dusty mechanic shack, an empty gas station.

I look up to the driver’s compartment for answers. The platform where the gear shifter is has been swung open like the hatch on a car. I watch as grey smoke fills the cabin, a fresh puff every time the engine churns to life. So the engine isn’t dead. That is good news. Now, the sound of metal on metal, someone hammering at something under the body of the bus. I sit back and take out my notebook. We could be here awhile.

We are here awhile. It has been more than an hour so far. Over the course of that time period, about four men have been fumbling with the workings of our bus. Testing the axis: left, right, left, right. A cut metal barrel is placed under the bumper as a rush of oil drips in. A man steps out of the driver’s compartment, hands slick with grease.

Another hour passes. Marlon and I see people starting to take their backpacks out of the bus. We’re told the bus is broken and that we will have to wait another hour for a replacement to come. We resign ourselves to getting tea, happy that we at least know what’s going on. But wait! Minutes later we’re told to repack our things and get on the bus. What happened to be a jammed axis on a very winding road was apparently fixed. Turns out this bus shall be our noble steed after all.

The two-hour rest stop led to artsy gas station photos...
The two-hour rest stop led to artsy gas station photos…

And it was, slowly but surely – we got to Pokhara, after 10 hours total. The bus chugged into the city, offering brilliant window views of the Annapurna Himalayan Range and golden lit fields as we went.

So, it really isn’t just about the destination, but the adventure it took to get there, too. Here’s to many more bus rides through Nepal – I still need to ride on the roof of a bus, so who knows what stories that will yield.

PS, an honourable mention bus story: On the ride from Janakpur to Ilam, a ceiling bar came loose, swinging down and almost hitting Marlon and I in the face (coincidentally, we were sitting in those same seats, right behind the driver). A young Nepalese teen looked at me and said frankly “you never know what can happen on a bus in this country!”

You never know, but that’s half the fun.