As quickly as we descended from Everest base camp (5200 meters) to Zhang Mu (2500 meters) in a day, we found ourselves nearly at sea level in about another day. The shock of crossing the border from China into Nepal was just about as drastic.
Our drive to Zhang Mu from Nyalam was exciting as it started to rain and we drove through road construction in progress, dodging large trucks and gear and people walking precariously on the side of the road back to their tents at 8pm. Our driver insisted on passing when we didn’t think there was room for one vehicle let alone two, but he got us safely to the seedy hotel we stayed at until the border crossing the next morning.
We left our hotel in Zhang Mu which was literally on the border, the building next door was the customs and immigration processing to cross over to “no mans land” between China and Nepal (technically disputed but it was all run by Chinese until we got to the Nepal immigration). We had to leave the Land Cruisers behind and cross on foot, pretty painlessly except the Chinese officials took their sweet time and made us wait an extra hour to cross. The Land Cruisers went through separately with our luggage and met us in no mans land to drive us down to the Nepal border.
When we stepped into Nepal everything changed instantly. The Nepalese guards, though carrying weapons, smiled at us and greeted with “Namaste”. Very quickly we noticed lush vegitation all around; little kids were firing of fire crackers (probably made in China). Yaks were replaced by Water Buffalo and goats were being slaughtered out in the open… we soon discovered that we had arrived right at the end of the Dashain festival where ritual animal sacrifice is common. There were no more land cruisers, but ragged jeeps and buses colorfully painted and decorated, and every car was pimped out with its own custom horn sound. There was no question about it, we were in a drastically different country having only stepped a few feet across a line. We had gotten used to the clear skies in Tibet, and even though there was barely any traffic due to Dashain the air all over Nepal is thick with haze. We kept wanting to believe it was just fog capture by the mountainous geography but it became clear (or unclear really) that it was smog.
After a few minutes ride on the bus, our guide, Sam, offered to let us up on the roof to ride as the locals do when the bus gets crowded. This drew a mixed reaction from people that we passed… some thought we were crazy (“why would you white people do that when the bus isn’t full?”), some were offended (I guess they thought we were mocking them… the middle finger apparently means the same thing in Nepal as it does at home), many thought it was cool and waved or gave us thumbs up… since we got more of the latter I didn’t feel that we really were mocking anybody and hopefully nobody was offended. It was an incredible way to see the country side as we drove down into Kathmandu. The entire country is stepped with terraces on every hill and there are people and houses everywhere. Kids play on giant swings. There are waterworks and dams harnessing the power of the quickly descending snow melt. The wind whips through your hair, but watch out, trees and power lines will smack ya if you don’t watch out and duck occasionally.
We were extremely lucky that none of the roads were washed out or blocked by mudslides. We were also lucky that because of the Dashain holiday, most of Kathmandu was shut down and there was no traffic. In fact, we had been extremely lucky with weather the entire leg of the trip in Tibet. Due to this luck (and the fact that our driver wanted to get home quickly for the Dashain holiday) we made it into Kathmandu in record time to our G.A.P. group’s hotel in the Thamel where we were offered “squash” (kinda like lemonade but a little more watery).
This unfortunately is where we had to depart from our G.A.P. group… and also unfortunately where are great luck started to run out. As our Tibet leg drew to a close and the Nepal leg began, we made our way to another hotel, the Shangri La, that we had booked with a different company where we were supposed to meet a local guide that would be with just Kim and I for our ten days in Nepal. When we arrived at that hotel however we discovered that it was sold out (regardless of the fact we’d booked months in advance) and our guide wasn’t there. A driver showed up in about 20 minutes who took us to another hotel called the “Yak & Yeti” that he assured us was comparable… well at first we thought Yak & Yeti sounded like a youth hostel and were pretty skeptical that we were being subject to some sort of scam. Fortunately the Yak & Yeti turned out to be one of the nicest hotels in Kathmandu (probably in all of Nepal) just a block away from the royal palace. Better yet we were given a suite that was easily one of the nicest rooms we’ve ever stayed in, let alone on this trip. I know this doesn’t sound like our good luck had run out (not quite yet), but the hotel change surprise was the first glimpse of more to come. Not to sound ungrateful though, we were extremely pleased with the room.
We were greeted by a representative of the tour company who then told us that our trip was being rearranged due to rumor of a transportation strike in the Chitwan national park area we were supposed to visit so that we would be there at a different time to avoid the possible strike. Now, we’re happy the company was trying to avoid us getting stuck in a transportation strike (looking out for us, or them?) but the surprise of it was a little disconcerting. They had my phone number and email, why was this the first we’d heard of it? Well, they were also surprised that we arrived over land instead of at the airport and didn’t know anything about Kim’s food allergies, even though we had told them about both far in advance. Everything was pointing to some poor organization and we were feeling more skeptical but trying to take things easy and go with the flow.
Well, unfortunately when our real guide arrived things didn’t seem to get much better. Now I don’t want to go on too much about it because it will probably bore everybody and I don’t want it to sound like it was all bad, but a lot of our experience in Nepal has been shaped by this guide. He was like the polar opposite of previous guides that we had. He was young, inexperienced, had no personality, didn’t communicate or listen to us well. But then again, we had always looked at these guides as a way to get us around and we would have our own good time. Ironically, though that is what we had expected, we’d become kind of accustomed to these really great guides who are outgoing, knowledgeable and end up becoming friends.
At any rate, we were whisked off to some site seeing right away… almost to some place we hadn’t heard of until we insisted that with our limited time we really wanted to see Bhaktapur, Swayambunath and Bodanath… So that evening we went to Bhaktapur with a local city guide, Nobin, was was really great. Bhaktapur is an older part of Kathmandu (really it’s own city but all the cities kind of blend together) with it’s own palaces and temples and durbar square (the square near the palace in Nepali cities). Unlike Kathmandu, Bhaktapur wasn’t shut down, it was alive with people celebrating Dashain. We saw several different temples and pagodas and even saw a sacrificed buffalo in one temple. It was all pretty amazing as the sun went down and the town was lit up by candle light and music. Nobin even invited us into his home where his mother made us tea (we weren’t very thirsty but quickly learned you can’t refuse their hospitality). He was young and studying management at university. We really enjoyed our evening and our concerns about the other guide seemed to wane as we figured the rest of the trip would be more like this. We were at least able to go back to Thamel for a farewell dinner with our G.A.P. group which was a good way to end the night.
The next day we were to be up early to go to the airport to catch our flight to Chitwan, but there was some confusion and delay as our guide made us wait 45 minutes to check out of the hotel (contacting head office for payment or something)… this really started to worry us as we thought we might miss our flight. Fortunately we just made it in the nick of time, but our concerns started to grow again. The flight to Chitwan was quick (what would have been a 6 hour drive over hilly country was a 20 minute flight), and we found ourselves down at hot and humid sea level when we had been in the frozen base camp just a few days earlier. We had high expectations of Chitwan as we’d heard a lot about seeing the wildlife there. The surroundings were beautiful, and our room was really nice, but the atmosphere of the place ended up being a bit of a disappointment. It was like adult summer camp as all the activities were rigidly scheduled and weren’t really presented as options but required programs that you were to complete whether you wanted to or not. We did have fun riding elephants but we didn’t see much wildlife and the rigidity of the schedule made it feel less like vacation and more like a chore (up at dawn for nature hike through the woods! the same ones we’d been through on the elephants already!). Determined not to let this get us down we just made the best of it but did have to opt out of a few activities so we could actually relax and enjoy ourselves. We met some other people there, an English couple Catherine and Tony, and an Australian couple Stewart and Amelia. We enjoyed making conversation with some new people but it was strange as our socially awkward guide insisted on eating dinner (without speaking) with us…
After a few days at Chitwan it was off to Bandipur, a really charming hill town between Chitwan and Pokhara. This was probably our favorite place in Nepal as it felt like the most authentic, quiet little farming village. As we later learned from a city guide in Kathmandu, Bandipur was the refuge of some of the royalty who fled when the ancestor of the current king united the kingdoms of the Kathmandu valley under one ruler. We stayed at a nice little hotel that was owned and renovated by the tour agency we were traveling with. All of the other employees we met were outgoing and friendly and we started to think that it wasn’t the company but just our guide that we were incompatible with. We wandered around the city and met some of the locals… one boy was wearing a Fear Factory shirt! I had seen lots of people wearing metal band tshirts in Nepal but wasn’t sure if those bands were popular here or if the shirts were just widely available… he seemed to genuinely be into Fear Factory which was pretty cool!
After only one day in Bandipur we drove again to Pokhara which I had envisioned from descriptions to be a sleepy fishing village around a lake (the largest in Nepal, lake Fewa or Phewa depending on where you see it written). I couldn’t have been much more wrong. It’s the second largest city in Nepal although it’s not quite as dense as Kathmandu it does sprawl quite a ways around the lake. The area around the lake itself is designed strictly for tourists with one shop or restaurant after another all looking the same. We were staying at the Fish Tail Lodge which is on an island in the middle of the lake and was actually pretty posh, but we were only there for one night before our “3 day Himalayan Trek”. Before this trek we had some chores to do which included checking email, getting some cash, and getting a hair cut… now, I didn’t *need* this haircut, but if I go more than a few weeks without shaving the sides of my head I start to feel too scruffy… so I went to a barber and tried to explain what I wanted (fade straight up). He tried his best, but I think I’ll need to give this another shot in Delhi. I actually got a little more than I bargained for as he gave me an Ayuervedic massage after the hair cut… if you’ve never had one, the way he grabbed my armpits and chest I thought he was going to at least buy me dinner first…
The next morning we left Pokhara to begin our trek… or what we like to call the “forced march of fun”. This is where things started to get really weird. On this trek we were joined by an assistant guide, a cook, and several porters (some of whom were assistant cooks). All of the porters and the cook were friendly, outgoing, and helpful. Even though the cook had apparently not been informed in advance of Kim’s food allergies, he made several last minute substitutions and all of our meals were great. Ironically, the tour, the “Royal Nepal Trek” tries to cater to western desires with copious amounts of western food, even though we tried to explain that Dal Bhat would be perfect and that we really don’t eat that much food. Still, he made wheat free pancakes and plenty of wheat/dairy free options. The reason the trek got weird was twofold:
1) The assistant guide was much like our guide, awkward, except that he barely spoke any English and even my attempts at speaking a little Nepali or Hindi were shunned. We weren’t quite sure what he was there for. Then, to make matters worse, the caste system seemed to be rigidly enforced as our guide joined us for dinner (candle lit dinner no less) while the assistant guide was apparently our waiter/servant (the guide would belt out his name when he wanted him to come)… All of this was quite strange to us, the porters were really doing all of the work, yet the guide and assistant guide had this heirarchy that we were supposed to condone. Now we were trying to be respectful of cultural differences, but this just didn’t feel comfortable.
2) We didn’t know what quite to expect with this trek and we kind of bit off more than we could chew. I think we thought “4-6 hours a day of hiking, no problem”… well, we could hike all day and night on relatively flat land, or even in the woods at home, but there is no “flat” in Nepal. “Nepali Flat” as we would learn is “some up, some down”… which really means you are climbing up and down mountains all day. And when I say up, I mean straight up, no switchbacks, just rocky walls straight up a mountain. Day 1 took us from 800 meters to 1150 with a lot of up and down, and Day 2 took us back down to 900 then up to 1300. What we also weren’t quite expecting was the heat. We were thinking that Nepal would be like Tibet with the mountains and altitude but it was over 25 centigrade every day (75 to 80) with the sun beating down through the haze. I’m proud to say we kept up with the porters pretty well and only had to stop for a few breaks (we even got our stride and beat our guides up the mountain on Day 3), but this was hard, sweaty work and we are still tired. When people have asked us how it was we keep saying “challenging”… but worth the challenge.
The only drawback was things were getting more and more awkward with our guides, and what would have been an enjoyable challenge with one of our previous guides (our last guide, Sam, is surely enjoying his vacation right now, but we wished he were in our current guide’s place several times) . More and more we were feeling like this was something else to get through and be done with (part of the reason we made it up so fast on Day 3)… the leeches sucking at our ankles at every chance didn’t help either.
All throughout the trek, one of the things we were supposed to enjoy was the great view of the mountains we would see from these higher camping spots. It was disappointingly hazy all the time, and though we tried to kid ourselves still that it was fog, the black smoke belching buses and garbage being burned everywhere told us the truth.
At last we made it back to Pokhara and back to the Fish Tail Lodge for another night of chores (laundry this time) and a good night’s rest, but not before an awkward dinner with the guides back at their headquarters… of course we wanted to go let the porters and cooks know how awesome they were and tipped them generously, but the whole night was just strange as we were there with other trekking groups but isolated from them at our own candle lit table (again, a potentially romantic evening joined by our third wheel for dinner).
A long drive would have been in our future but we had requested several days earlier that we fly from Pokhara to Kathmandu since there was still so much to see in very little time. This morning we were not too pleased when our guide was over 30 minutes late meeting us, again worrying us about missing a flight… only to learn that our flight was delayed and they had failed to call us and let us know or to meet us at the agreed upon time to sort things out. This made for a frustrating morning as our flight was delayed 2 hours, but we finally boarded the plane to Kathmandu and saw a spectacular view of the mountains that had avoided us during the trek due to the haze all around.
So today we visited Bodanath Stupa and Swayambunath Stupa (the “monkey temple”, aptly named by tourists) which were both spectacular as you can see in the photos. We had to be pretty assertive as to what we wanted to see as our guide again tried to waylay us to some other sites, but we could not visit Kathmandu without seeing those amazing sites, and at this point I’m not too worried about offending his sensibilities, this is our vacation and we need to make sure we’re doing what we enjoy. Our city guide today, Anan, was quite good and very informative. He was also a bit older and didn’t mind talking with us about the political situation in Nepal (people seem much more free to talk about that here than in Tibet). Most people seem optimistic that elections, when they do come, will help move the country forward towards a more representative government. One thing I couldn’t really capture in a photo was the traffic that we got to enjoy as the holiday is now over and Kathmandu is back to it’s regular self. There are buses, bikes, people, goats, buffalo, motorcycles and monkeys all going any direction (though ostensibly they drive on the left due to British influence) with no traffic signals… we saw a few cops directing traffic in vain. I don’t know if the pollution is worse now because of the traffic, but it’s pretty gross and you feel really dirty mid way through the day.
Still, after site seeing Kim and I were determined to make some good memories in Nepal and we went to dinner, just the two of us this time, in Thamel at a nice restaurant in a rooftop garden away from all the noise. Then we walked around and did some shopping… I’ve been on a quest to get some of the local music I’m hearing from our drivers (some contemporary sounds mixed with traditional elements)… it’s proved hard to find, especially the stuff we heard in Tibet (I asked our driver there but he had only a tape that was old, and there were not nearly the availability in stores there that there is in Nepal which is much more commercial, if not authentic).
We are back at the fabulous Yak & Yeti with a fast[er] internet connection (not super cheap, but affordable and convenient)… however even with this connection I’ve spent most of the night just catching up on getting photos up and posting so I’m going to skip putting some of the photos into context in the posts (maybe next time) and for now you’ll just have to go to the photo galleries.
One thing we’ve noticed on the trip is that the moon has been getting fuller as the trip goes on and it just reached it’s fullest and will now begin to wane for the rest of our trip. It’s sort of an egg timer in the sky letting us know how much time is left before we go home. As of a few days ago we are half way through the trip and tomorrow morning we fly to Delhi to begin the next and final leg of the trip. We are really looking forward to India and hopefully this will mark a change of our luck for the better.