The Gate of Heaven and Other Story Worlds

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Lines of multi-coloured prayer flags spoke out from the gilded pinnacle, and at the circular base are little prayer wheels, also bearing the these - in a clockwise direction only, mind; counterclockwise is reserved for advanced practitioners - bestows a benefit to the spinner. There are little shops and shrines circling the stupa, and butter lamps and flower offerings everywhere. Despite the proliferation of tourists, an atmosphere of reverence pervades what is one of the oldest and most enigmatic holy shrines in Nepal.

It's a complex of temples and shrines, both Buddhist and Hindu. Until the early 20th Century, this area was home to the King - Nepal, home to 27m people, was a monarchy until , when it became a constitutional monarchy. In , a bizarre series of events occurred that caused a sensation - and riots. Crown Prince Dipendra, aka 'Dippy', enraged at his parents who had refused his request to marry a local aristocrat, and drunk on The Famous Grouse scotch, shot them and seven other royals using a sub-machine gun, then used a Glock pistol to unsuccessfully kill himself.

Dippy apparently kicked his father, the King, after he had shot him, an act that arguably caused more shock in Nepalese society than the killing itself. Dippy was proclaimed King while in a coma but he died after a three-day reign. His uncle became King, but in the monarchy was abolished and a Federal Democratic Republic was declared.

In Durbar Square, we get our tikkas the red dot on the forehead; a blessing at Mahendreswor Temple, which was built in and is dedicated to Shiva. You could spend days wandering around the innumerable beautiful pagoda-like temples, palaces and shrines. A maze of little streets and squares, the Durbar Square area was built between the 12th and 18th Centuries.

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Perhaps one of the most extraordinary things you are ever likely to encounter is here, in the Kumari-ghar: a living goddess. From the ancient quadrangle, a latticed, intricately carved window is visible a few stories up. You can feel the crowd mentally willing Matina Shakya, the current Kumari virgin to appear.

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There's a sudden hush, and there she is: a child in ornate red robes, her dark, kohl-rimmed eyes looking haughtily down. Her feet are never allowed touch the ground; if she goes outside, she is carried. To become a living goddess, she must fulfil a number of criteria, including having eyelashes like a cow, thighs like a deer and a voice as soft and clear as a duck. She also must undergo tests, including a night surrounded by ritually severed animal heads, without showing any fear. Once crowned, if she sheds any blood or once her period starts, it is thought that the goddess deity leaves her body and she becomes a commoner again.

The transition is difficult, but as our guide explains, goddesses these days are allowed to watch cartoons and are given an education, so find it somewhat easier to return to their village and normal life. It's difficult to top a living goddess, but Nepal is abundant in singular experiences.

Pashupathinath Temple on the banks of the Bagmati, 3km north of Kathmandu, is dedicated to Pashupathi, Lord of the Animals. The temple, which contains the sacred phallic symbols of Shiva, dates back to AD, is an important Hindu pilgrimage site. Entry is barred to non-Hindus, but the view from the far side of the river is sufficiently fascinating.

Outlandishly dressed saddhus holy men sit along the bank. One beckons as we walk past; holy he may be, but it's money he's after.

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Avoiding him and the ubiquitous cows and monkeys, we walk along the bank, eyeing the ghats steps lining the far side. The Bagmati is a sacred river, and many who cannot afford to travel to the Ganges in Varanasi to cremate their dead, come here. There are now controversial plans to build an electric crematorium to stem the pollution that results from the daily cremations. The aroma of sandalwood and ash hang thick in the air as we come to a crowd gathering on the bridge. Down below, no more than ten feet away, is a man busily preparing a body, perhaps his father, for cremation.

He pulls and drags it, the effort clearly visible on his face as he struggles to remove a plastic sheet, and then winds the white cloth around the corpse, leaving the head visible, tucking in butter lamps here and there so that the cremation fire will take hold once lit. I feel I'm intruding on this man's private grief, and as the clicking of cameras mixes with the first crackles of the cremation fire, I walk away, a bit raw from the realness of it all.

The next day, it's up early for a flight over Everest, for anyone who wants to go. Despite two attempts, Sagarmatha Head of the Sky does not deign to show herself. The disappointment is tempered a little by the fact that there's no charge for a no-show. It's on to Bodhnath, the site of the largest stupa in Nepal. The stupa here is colossal; built in AD, it's said to house bones from Buddha's skeleton, and its physical structure is symbolic of Buddha's path to enlightenment.

The plinth is the earth, the dome is water, the tower is fire, the spire is air and the top represents the void. The dome of the structure is so big that it's possible to climb up and walk around on it, underneath the multitude of fluttering prayer flags. Lunch is a tasty affair in the Boudha Kitchen, under the watchful eyes of the stupa. Fed and watered - we try raksi, a traditional alcoholic drink make from rice that tastes a little like saki - we head to a tanka painting school.

Tankas are exquisitely detailed paintings that usually depict a Buddhist deity, scene or mandala. They are traditionally painted with very fine brushes made from three hairs of a cat's tail and require immense skill and concentration to complete. Prices vary depending on the skill level of the artist, but haggling is expected and welcomed.

Our final day in Nepal is spent in the ancient city of Bhaktapur, which lies on an ancient trade route between Tibet and India, and is one of three royal cities in Nepal. No cars are allowed in, and to enter through the gates is to step back in time. The city was founded in the 12th Century and partly destroyed in by an earthquake.

Despite this, much of Bhaktapur is perfectly preserved and has remained unchanged throughout the centuries. It has two exquisite stone statues of Hindu deities on either side, and legend has it that once the artisans finished, the King cut off their hands so they couldn't reproduce such beautiful work for another.

There is so much to see here: in Pottery Square, vessels are thrown and fired in traditional manner, while Vatsala Temple has a bell that sounds like a dog barking and is believed to be a death knell. No one was brave enough! Shiva Parvati Temple has stone elephants copulating in the missionary position, while Nyatapola Temple is a five-storied pagoda, the highest in Nepal, with breathtakingly intricate carvings and stonework.

Having come from Delhi, we left Nepal the next morning to journey on to the holy Indian city of Varanasi, which held the promise of its own particular delights, but the tinkle of prayer bells and the pulsing hum of Om Mani Padme Hum was to linger long after we left the land of the Himalayas far, far behind. You have to do it.


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The Lauterbrunnen valley hosts a total of 72 separate cascades the best known is the S taubbachfall located just left above the village of Lauterbrunnen. Here, the steep ascent is made easier by a platform elevator and the raging torrent of glacial meltwater will make your heart tremble.

A typical alpine chalet View from the train to Jungfraujoch. The Panoramaweg hike gives it away in its name.

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An easy to moderate 3. Keep an eye out for delicate edelweiss blossoms on this trail and try your best not to break into song.

A journey to the Top of Europe — the Jungfraujoch pass — is essential. Views of the Aletsch Glacier are astounding and a walk around the ice-palace a must. From here an ultra-fast lift carries you up to the steam-punk style edifice of the Sphinx Observatory. The words solar spectrometer matched with the buildings unusual sci-fi design is enough to have you dreaming of Hollywood androids. All of the six villages in the Jungfrau region are worth a visit, especially as the transport between them is so efficiently Swiss. Throughout summer, Grindelwald is bedecked in wildflowers growing amongst its chocolate box wood chalets.

This petite hamlet looks as if it jumped out of the pages of a storybook.

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A charming walking route, the Grosse Scheidegg , is quite possibly one of the most beautiful trails in the whole region — which is no easy feat in an area with so much beauty. Routes along this stretch of the mountain vary from easy to difficult but for those looking for a pleasant stroll ending with schnapps start at Meiringen.

Take the Postbus to the hotel at Grosse Scheidegg where a gentle climb leads through wild meadows and over small streams running with pristine mountain water. Views over Grindelwald and the glaciers beyond as well as glimpses of the Sshwarzhorn peak delight throughout this hike. The path ends at the Grindelwald — First gondola where those with no fear can take the First cliff walk across metallic walkways jutting meters over the sheer drop into icy, snowy oblivion.

The views here are beyond description. Alternatively, an hour hike from here will take you to Bachalpsee , a glassy alpine lake that shimmers with the reflection of the mountains. A church glimpsed from the train by the stream at Lauterbrunnen Jungfrau is dotted with picture-postcard Alpine villages. Finally, the village of Ballenberg operates as an open-air interactive museum showcasing Swiss history and perfectly persevered architectural structures from all over the country.

There are over 30 workshops where you can have a go at anything from making wooden toys to herbal medicines, cheese making, beekeeping, basket weaving and wool spinning. With the seemingly endless list of activities on offer throughout the region, it would be ideal to bookend your stay with a spa day or three, or more back at Interlaken. A team of medical staff, chefs and therapists create a bespoke plan just for you.

Interlaken and the Jungfrau region come out of the pages of a fairy tale. The dream-like scenery with snow-capped peaks sitting above vibrant green pastures clinking with cowbells, sparkling alpine water and that world-famous Swiss efficiency tick a lot of holiday boxes for families and couples. Holidays here can be as intensely experiential as you have the energy for or as lazy as a mountain cow wandering an alpine path, which is what makes it such an appealing destination.


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