Tale of Three Cities – Himalayan Travelogue

Winter 2019

The Himalayas have been on our bucket list for some time. When we saw photos of the soaring mountain range in the brochure, we were hooked.  We voyaged to Nepal (home of 8 of the world’s 10 highest mountains) and Bhutan.

Nancy and I flew Air Qatar directly from Philadelphia to Doha, Qatar and then to Katmandu, Nepal. There was a 10-hour layover in Qatar, the richest country in the world, per capita (oil).  Air Qatar offered an evening tour of the city, which fit right into our schedule.  This is a showplace for international architects; I.M. Pei designed the Museum of Islamic Art. The top of the museum resembles eye opening in women’s Islamic dress.  Buildings are colorfully illuminated; one is more beautiful than the next.  Only 13% of the residents are citizens; others have come for work opportunities.

Katmandu, Nepal was quite different.  We arrived at a dated and dingy airport. While the country is poor, it would probably be relatively easy to arrange for some entity to fund airport improvements in exchange for a contract to run it, but that takes a functioning government. The government in Nepal was a monarchy, soiled by a son murdering his father in 2001. In 2008, the country became a republic, currently ruled by the Nepal Communist Party.

Inside the airport, we were routed through a visa application line, followed by another line to check the visas we were just issued before leaving the airport.  In order to retrieve our baggage, we joined another line to re-enter and clear security back into the baggage area before exiting again. Not a smart way to run an airport!

Katmandu sounds and is exotic, but it is also a city of 5 million people, it is dirty with barely functioning infrastructure. The main road to our hotel was rutted, appeared to be dirt with piles of road debris. Supposedly it is being widened.  Why not finish a portion of the road, and then work on the next portion? Motorbikes spewed choking exhaust.  We took cabs several times, and were surprised that the small tires withstood the shock of driving through the deep ruts.

Nepal has about 70 tribes, and about 20 million inhabitants. Famous tribes are the Sherpas (Mt. Everest guides), and the Gurkhas (soldiers).  We spent 2 days in Katmandu visiting sites. Nepal is mostly Hindu with about 30% Buddhists.  Buddha was born in Nepal.  One of the most interesting visits was the home of the Kumari, a pre-pubescent girl selected and revered as a reborn goddess (similar to the Dalai Lama). 

We visited the ancient town of Bhaktapur, which was clean and attractive.  One of the buildings is being conserved and turned into a national art gallery.  We noted the estimated completion date on the sign – 2075!

No wonder the roadwork was not finished.

An interesting and macabre visit was to the funeral site in Katmandu. The dead are burned on concrete platforms next to the river, and afterwards, the ashes are swept into the river.  With the temples, the flames, monkeys running around the stone monuments, this certainly inspired some Indiana Jones scenes.

We headed out to the countryside about 30 miles from Katmandu. The trip to Nakargot over severely rutted roads took 2 hours.  Our trip had been designed so that we were progressing upward in altitude, giving us a chance to adjust.  Katmandu is about 5,000 feet. Our next stop, Nakargot, was in the foothills of the Himalayas at about 7,000 feet. The atmosphere is hazy from, I presume, wood fires and internal combustion engines.  There was a dramatic view of the Himalayas at daybreak from the rooftop observatory; otherwise, they were obscured by haze.  We did some pleasant hiking, and visited a local farming village which gave us a chance to see how peasants lived. 

After 2 days we headed back to the airport, and flew Druk (dragon) Air to Bhutan. This is a country of 750,000 people, with the capital, Thimpu of 150,000.  The difference in government function was immediately evident as we arrived at the beautiful, clean airport.  Bhutan was closed to outsiders until 1974, and now is open under limited conditions. Visitors must spend at least $250 per day, and must have a guide. Bhutan on $10 per day is not possible. This is a kingdom, with the current Oxford-educated king succeeding his father. Pictures of the royal family are everywhere.  From what our excellent guide said, the king is very involved in the operation of the country.  One of my fellow travelers characterized the government as a benevolent dictatorship, and stated that this might be the best form of government. The country is very traditional. Both men and women are required to wear customary dress at work, school, and at religious and official events.  This is sort of a kilt for men, and a long skirt and jacket of beautiful hand-woven material for women. 

In contrast to Nepal, rivers were sparkling clean, and there was good road infrastructure. It’s a safe, clean country with a lot to see.  Local crafters were humming along with the building cranes in Thimpu. There are stunning Dzong (fortresses) every 20 miles or so in Bhutan.  Originally feudal, the country was united only in 1907. The Dzong have been restored/maintained and with their dramatic locations are reminiscent of mediaeval castles in Europe. Buddhism is an important part of life with many shrines, nuns and monks.  In addition to sacred cows, both here and in Nepal, dogs are highly regarded and roam free. The main trading partner of Bhutan and source of tourists is India.  The country borders on Tibet, but because of the mountains, there are no roads. The country is mountainous, with little land suitable for agriculture. They make the most of it with terraced fields.

After several days in Thimpu, we headed out through a mountain pass into the countryside. By this time the 10,000 or so feet altitude did not bother us.  It was not as cold as one might think; altitude is mitigated by closeness to the equator. Our guide explained that to reach snow, we had to be at 12 to 15,000 feet.

Highlight of the trip was our visit to the Tiger’s Nest, a monastery perched at 11,000 feet on the side of cliff.  No gondola up- part of the experience is the climb. We began at the base of the mountain and after 3 strenuous hours reached the monastery.  To make things more civilized, there is a tea house at about the halfway point.  I passed on going into the shrine, as I did for most temples and shrines after the first few. A bit later, Nancy came running out- wheezing from the incense which burns in most temples. 

If one is fortunate enough to be able to do it, the travel is hard but this trip is fascinating, eye-opening, and informative.  

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