THE LITTLE THINGS
There’s much more to Nepal than mountains, finds Thomas Heaton
FINDS ZEN – AND A NEW FAVOURITE FOOD – IN NEPAL.
THE STEADY HUM OF MONKS praying is interrupted only by the quiet thump of the drums or the occasional holler from a shopkeeper, but there’s nothing that can distract you from the enormity of the Buddhist monument Boudhanath Stupa.
In a sort of trance, I attempt to absorb everything around me: 17th- or 18th-century buildings on my right, with silk paintings and various trinkets sitting at their steps; and the apparent resting place of ancient Buddha, Kassapa, on my left. I only come to when a Nepali man stops me. In broken English, he tells me I'm walking the wrong way. Rather confused, I turn around.
Boudhanath is a place of worship, and one of the biggest stupa in the world. Buddhists make pilgrimages to the stupa to pray; I don’t want to misstep. Thousands of colourful prayer flags drape the 36-metre monolith as it looks over the surrounding buildings with the painted-on “calming eyes of Buddha”.
“Don’t be angry,” he repeatedly tells me. I think he thought I was upset by his orders. He continually pleads. He walks ahead, stops, waits for me. He tells me again. “No angry. Little things in life, they make big difference.”
He slaps me on the shoulder and looks up, reveals a crooked, enthusiastic smile. He continues on his way, leaving this mystified foreigner in his chirpy, zen-like Buddhist wake.
This sense of mystification and wonder doesn't abate during my time in Nepal; every day I become more fascinated by the country, and my first encounter with its food is no exception. At the Summit Hotel in Kupondole Heights, south of the stupa, I'm presented with a table laden with stout bronze goblets, filled with chutneys, vegetables, yellow lentil soup and a meat curry, which surround a mound of rice, with a wee pappadum on top – this is dal-bhat-tarkari. There are tastes of an India Kiwis may recognise, but it’s not Indian. The mutton curry (khasi ko masu) is warm but not too spicy and it’s rich, but not creamy. The various chutneys ease or intensify the heat of each mouthful. But it’s the gunpowder-like substance on the corner of the plate that’s most intriguing. It kicks, but it’s not spicy. It has a funk, like kimchi, and a bitterness like gourd.The waiter says it’s gundruk, one of Nepal’s national foods – apparently 2000 tonnes of the stuff is made each year. Essentially, gundruk is greens from the tops of radishes, mustard leaves or cabbage plant, fermented and dried. It’s incomparable to anything I’ve tasted before and I'm an instant convert.
Kathmandu's awe-inspiring place of worship, Boudhanath Stupa
OPPOSITE Fresh produce vendors in Thamel, Kathmandu