Helen van Berkel gets a surprisingly warm welcome in colourful and tumultuous Nepal.

Trekking. It's a word that conjures up images of mountain passes and yaks and backpacks the size of a primary-school age child. But what it actually means is walking, right? So I can honestly say that I have been trekking in Nepal. My trekking just involved lots of markets and temples and palaces.

I was in the mountain nation with Crooked Compass' Soul of Nepal tour to learn that Nepal is more than mountains and snow.

It's also heat - Nepal is on the same latitude as Florida and swelters in the same hot summers. My specially bought thermals stayed in their packaging until it became necessary to make room for my new singing bowl and handcarved Kamari window and yak-wool pashminas.

Nepal is also traffic. The vehicle with the biggest horn has the right of way and the road rules do not apply to motorbikes, pedestrians or dogs.


To this day, I can't believe our tour bus stayed unscratched despite inching past huge colourful trucks on muddy mountain roads, one driver so close I could have lit his cigarette for him.

In tumultuous Kathmandu, melodious notes from brightly coloured trucks mingle with the high-pitched bleats from the bikes, the squawks of rickety rickshaws and the roar of hybrid vehicles that look completely made up. It's a smelly, thrilling brew of fumes, sacred cows, and people carrying outrageous loads on their backs. But somehow it works.

And Nepal is temples. Each of the mountain nation's main cities - Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur - was once a kingdom in its own right and each has a Durbar or palace square. Each is a Unesco World Heritage site.

The kings and their descendants spent a few hundred years trying to outdo each other in an exuberant and sometimes highly erotic frenzy of building. Hundreds of temples and palaces remain to amaze and titillate - despite last year's earthquake that reduced many of these glorious relics to dusty piles of shattered brick.

Kathmandu's square alone has more than 50 Hindu and Buddhist temples and monuments.

In Bhaktapur, the five-storey Nyatapola temple overlooks a neatly laid-out Durbar square dotted with architectural treasures.

Patan, just across the Bagmati River from Kathmandu, boasts an even more impressive collection of carved temples dedicated to the pantheon of Hindu gods - I was astonished to hear there are 330 million of them.

I wandered for hours in these squares, marvelling at the works on public display: intricate lintels, doorways and windows; carved gods and goddesses. Elephant and rat statues indicate which god the temple is dedicated to.

We even saw a real-life goddess. Known as the Kumari, she appeared briefly in her window at Kathmandu's Kumari Ghar: a heavily made-up young girl Hindus believe is the manifestation of female divine energy.

She lives in the palace with carers who ensure her feet do not touch the ground - although an exception may have been made during last year's earthquake. She became a goddess at the age of 3 after a rigorous selection process, but as soon as she menstruates she is sent back home, a goddess no more. The previous Kumari is now in IT.

Even as you wander around, tripping over centuries worth of treasures, real life is going on all around you. Street sellers jostle, monks chant, and religious ceremonies add the scents of incense and sounds of worship. It's almost a carnival - even if a cremation is going on.

Pashupatinath on the banks of the Bagmati is Nepal's most sacred Hindu shrine, attracting pilgrims, priests, devotees - and revellers - from kilometres around. And it is where they cremate their dead.

A funeral fire was already burning as we got there in the late afternoon. I think my mouth was agape the whole time I was here -- until I remembered that probably wasn't a good idea.

Families arrived carrying cloth-wrapped bodies on stretchers and prepared them for cremation. Each was unwrapped and washed in river water and, after a few brief rituals, laid on a prepared pyre. Grasses were placed around it to ensure the fire took.

And then it was lit. Then another body arrived. And another. One body lay on the stones, untouched, presumably waiting for family members to arrive.

As darkness gathered and more fires were lit in the cremation ghats, enthusiastic dancing and singing started on our side of the bank. It was the Friday nightly Aarti ceremony, with mantras, kirtan, bells, incense, lights and energetic dancing and cheering. On one side of the river was a raucous party, on the other cremations.

But most importantly, Nepal is about culture and people. A huddle of red-clad women greeted us in the medieval village of Panauti (communityhomestay.com/panauti/) and led us on a drum-and-symbol procession through the town and for the next few days Rajani, her daughters Luniva, Lunawi and husband Raam were my hosts.

We cooked together, ate together, drank potent rice wine together and explored their village and their lives.

We also did a morning of semi-genuine trekking, to visit mountain settlements. Here, the goats live in the family home and we were warned against all climbing to the top storey together for fear we'd fall through the mud floor. Life looked hard and indeed aid is only just reaching some of these isolated people after the earthquake.

Later that day, as the distant Himalayas blushed pink in the setting sun I stood on a rooftop of a house that looked like it had come out of a fairytale, a Kiwi-born Dutchie wearing a sari and contemplating performing a haka.

Nepalese women sang and danced. They gestured for us to show off some of our own culture and fortunately, before I could remember what came after "ka mate", the Aussies jumped in with an "ancient cultural song" (aka, the theme tune from a well-known television show) about kangaroos and rocking chairs and, of course, sheep.

I mouthed along and danced in my sari and pretended I knew what they were singing.

It was a moment of quiet shame that all I could come up with as an example of my culture was a half-assed haka. One of the many things you can say about Nepal is that the people are deeply connected to its extraordinarily rich culture and history.

Getting there
Korean Air flies daily from Auckland to Seoul and connects with a three-times weekly service to Kathmandu.


For details on Crooked Compass tours of Nepal and other parts of the world.