Hello and Goodbye: Namaste
Thank you: Dhan’yavada
Currency: Nepalese Rupee
Nepal is known to many people as the home of Everest. This small country has one of the world’s most famous and deadly natural treasures. The slice of the Himalayas that reclines across the top of the country is a feast for the eyes and soothing to the spirit if you are fortunate enough to explore the famous peaks. My visits to Nepal meant spending days hiking through these mountains, watching the locals farm along the steep ridges, drinking chai tea, and avoiding donkey caravans full of goods and groceries. It’s hard not to smile when waking to the wild still of chiseled mountains capped with snow. October skies heightened the experience by presenting the brilliant blue backdrop of autumn. Fortunately, tourism has brought some wealth to the country along with education and jobs but Nepal is still one of the poorest countries in the world. Tourism has also brought mountains of trash and some irresponsible tourism to the Everest region so if you go, be responsible and considerate to the people who call the country home.
Nepal is inexpensive and full of sights and sounds to keep you engaged for weeks - Hindu and Buddhist culture, the Himalayas, shopping in Kathmandu, and animal safaris in Chitwan. It was my first trip to Asia and even my taxi ride from the airport to the hotel in a car with unintentional viewing holes of the passing road beneath could not keep me from falling in love.
October 2003: On my first trip I arranged to hike with a small group and booked through Gap Adventures (at that time, Real Traveler). When I arrived, the local operator was Exodus Treks and Expeditions which is based in the U.K.. The trip was called Annapurna Panorama and Chitwan which included several days of hiking and an excursion into Chitwan where we took part in elephant safaris to see the wildlife and the rhinos up close.
October 2004: My second trip to Nepal was to volunteer for a week followed by a hike into the Everest region. Our small group of volunteers worked with children from a school in Kathmandu in a program called the “Share with Kids”. The program was developed and arranged by Global Dental Expeditions, a group that organizes dental clinics for children. “Share with Kids” was an outreach program to further relationships with the children at a local school.
Kathmandu Area To See and Do:
Thamel - This is a key tourist area in Kathmandu and contains plenty of restaurants, shops where you can purchase souvenirs such as pashminas (usually a blend of cashmere and silk but you can find some that are 100% cashmere), local trinkets embolic of the Buddhist traditions, rugs (you will be amazed at how small they can fold them for transport), and local art. There is always tourist activity and places to buy any additional gear you might need for your hikes.
Kathmandu Durbar Square - This is the historic center with palaces, courtyards and temples. It also includes the Kumari Chowk, a cage containing the Raj Kumari, the living goddess, representing the Hindu mother goddess, Durga.
Buddhist Stupa of Boudhanath- This is one of the largest stupa in the world and where you can go to walk in circles and achieve merit. It is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Kathmandu. When visiting, you can hear the chanting music of the Buddhist monks and watch the faithful come to spin prayer wheels and fulfill their daily obligations of counter-clockwise rotations around the Stupa.
Pashupatinath Temple - This is a sacred Hindu shrine on the Bagmati River where you can see the temple sadhus (holy person) and possibly witness a cremation.
Swayambhunath - Also known as the Monkey Temple, is a religious complex that sits atop a hill outside of Kathmandu.
Bhaktapur - (translation - Place of Devotees). It is located just outside of Kathmandu and is a World Heritage Site and has a well preserved old city center with incredible temples and courtyards.
Patan - South of Kathmandu, a city of fine arts, containing many temples.
Ride on a bicycle rickshaw - You will find yourself clinging to the sides of the seat as the highly motivated driver seems to sprint through large crowds, the seemingly fragile basket where you are seated teetering dangerously over every little hiccup in the asphalt. It’s best to encourage yourself to laugh loudly to keep panic at bay.
Hiking in Annapurna region:
To hike in Annapurna, you need to make your way to Pokhara. Our mode of transport was a rather mature and experienced mini bus. Thankfully, at the time, I did not know that the road from Kathmandu to Pokhara is considered to be one of the most dangerous roads in the world. As I experienced the six plus hours of hot dusty cliff hanging travel, I can fully concur with that claim. But once you reach Pokhara to hike in the Annapurna region, it is a generous reward for the hours of anxiety.
Trekking for days through Annapurna was wonderful, the crisp mornings with views of the sculpted mountains (Mount Machhapuchhre is an amazing site on the horizon) progressed into sweaty afternoons staring up endless rock encrusted slopes praying it would level out at the top. I passed families and farmers living their lives, poor by material standards, but rich in nature’s beauty and living simply and forcefully.
The trek was punctuated with stops at small tea houses where we enjoyed chai tea (also called masala tea), one of the best home brewed concoctions you can drink. There were also ample sodas and plenty of Fresca if you preferred a cold drink.
Meals were simple with breakfasts of porridge, the occasional blessing of eggs, and at one stop, some wonderful lemon sugared pancakes. Lunches and dinners consisted of traditional dal bhat, vegetable dumplings called “momos”, and welcome varieties of hot soups. And we enjoyed cold Everest beer in the evening. We all earned a certificate for reaching the height of 2855 meters (9367 feet), child’s play compared to the extra 20,000 feet you need to climb to summit Everest.
Poon Hill for sunrise - Scrambling up a narrow rocky path on a cold, dark morning with only a headlamp for guidance. The reward? Witnessing a sunrise over the distinct sharp profile of Annapurna I, also known as Machhapuchhre which translate to Fishtail. Seeing the sun slowly reach up over the frosted mountains while we stood shivering at the top of the hill made us feel as if we had conquered Annapurna instead of the subservient companion of a hill.
Royal Chitwan National Park - Travel here for the opportunity to experience an elephant safari, the best way to see the rhinos without the danger of being attacked. Although I don’t really support the “elephant riding” industry, it is a memorable experience and these elephants seemed to have a legitimate job. You’ll also have a chance to enjoy the screams from the other rooms at the intrusion of uninvited arthropods.
Hiking in Everest Region:
The journey began with a flight on Yeti airlines from the airport in Kathmandu. There is little formality for local flights. It consisted of an announcement for our flight followed by someone pointing to a small plane. The small group of anxious travelers walked quickly to try to score a window seat for the flight to Lukla. We had esteemed company on our flight that day, David Breashears, who co-directed the 1998 film “Everest”. I sat next to one of his friends for the flight and we had a lively conversation about Nepal. He seemed impressed that I had hiked in Annapurna the previous year and had just finished volunteering with kids in Kathmandu!
However, my exploits quickly took a backseat to the plane landing in Lukla. The small plane landed aggressively and it looked as if we would hit the side of a mountain, skidding carefully to a stop at the end of the short runway that is enforced by a wall of mountain. And when we left Lukla, the experience was equally intimidating as the plane began its journey, tail backed to the mountain wall with a rapid acceleration down the short runway until the pavement ended and we were suspended in flight to work our way back to Kathmandu.
Our group consisted of five volunteers, one acting as our guide, along with our porters and their yaks. Many people refer to all porters as Sherpas but the Sherpas are one of the ethnic groups in Nepal and not all porters are Sherpas. For many of the hard working porters, the tourist seasons in fall and spring are an important source of income to supplement their farming income.
The hike started with a half day of “not hiking” while acclimating to the altitude over tea and biscuits. The entire excursion consisted of six days on a round-trip hike which took us through Sagarmatha National Park, a world heritage site in the Khumbu region (also known as the Everest Region). It was a few days before we could even see the famous Mount Everest which rises to 29,035 feet. Shaggy, stoic yaks (the females are called naks) calmly plodded along with our porters to transport everything we needed for a week on the trail. They were also the only argument I needed to cross some of the swinging bridges crossing the deep river cut valleys. Once I witnessed a 1000 pound animal crossing the swinging wooden bridges, I was reassured it would hold my meager 116 pound body.
Notable stops included Namche Bazar, an interesting village that looks to be flung onto the side of a mountain like a crumpled quilt, with lodges, restaurants and markets creating the multi-colored squares. As this is a major stopping point on the trail to Everest we encountered more people than we had seen in days. The crowds produce a festive air about the place and there are plenty of opportunities to drink, eat, rest, and shop the Tibetan markets to buy woolen hats and gloves and other important gear for the coming days. From there, the destination was Tengboche (12,697 feet elevation), site of the famous Monastery, where we had planned to stay for the night before making the return trip to catch our flight back to Kathmandu. But the inn was full and we had to hike another hour to Dingboche (14,800 feet) where there was a Buddhist nunnery. I remember three things - the cold, cold room I had that night as most lodges only have heat in the common room where everyone eats, the taste of the yak steaks we had for dinner which were thankfully accompanied by generous portions of mashed potatoes, and the stunning views of Everest the next morning, an intimidating wall of rock against a brilliant blue sky. Although it was still at least an additional three days to base camp, Everest seemed to stand right over us, immense and forbidding. I didn’t need to climb it to appreciate its majesty.
Share with Kids Program: On my second trip I was part of a volunteer group to help occupy a group of children at the boarding school who were on Diwali “break”. Similar to celebrating Christmas in America, many of the children were able to go home and spend the holiday with their parents. However, some children traveled so far to go to school in Kathmandu that they didn’t have time to make the trip home for the holiday. One of the boys I mentored for the week, Kunchok, who was 10, made a journey of 5 days walking through the mountains and one full day bus ride just to reach the school. I also mentored a young boy named Kiran, who was 8, and a feisty, friendly local.
We spent the week with the children keeping them busy with local adventures and helping them practice their English. Although they are taught English in school, along with Tibetan and Nepali, they seldom have the opportunity to practice conversational English. At the end of a week with us, I could see the confidence and skill level improve which was a victory for everyone.
We escorted the children around Kathmandu so that they could see the city in a way that most of them never had a chance to experience. We hired bicycle rickshaws for the journey to Durbar Square and despite the chaos of people, animals, cars and other bicycle rickshaws, we all arrived in one piece to explore the famous square. Our field trips included a stop at Changu Narayan Temple, high atop a hill; a visit to a local snack food factory, and a visit to Pashupatinath Temple, a sacred Hindu shrine on the Bagmati River.
Our excursions included lunch one day at the Rum Doodle Restaurant which is famous for Everest trekkers documenting their adventures on large paper feet which decorate the walls and ceiling of the restaurant. It has been transformed into a graffitied testament to the draw of Everest. Since some of the children had never eaten at a restaurant before, one young boy eagerly began to clear plates once we finished our pizza just as he would have been required to do at school. Everyone had to laugh as the wait staff thanked him and then set him back to his table to enjoy an ice cream dessert.
One afternoon, we made our way up a steep hill to Nagarkot so the children could build and fly kites with outstanding views of the Himalayas in the distance. The journey to the inn on the top of a hill started with a bus ride where we slowly made our way to the top of the small mountain. Unfortunately our ascent also brought on waves of car sickness for the mostly car “naive” children and the trip was punctuated with several unscheduled stops. Once we arrived, the children quickly set to work building kites and then sending the colored paper high over the valley as the sun started to drop behind the backdrop of the Himalayas. This was the highlight of the week as many of these kids had never seen a kite before, let alone built one to fly in the hills. The experience became even richer with their first overnight experience in a hotel. That evening’s dinner took on the air of a large family celebration with the boys and girls eating heartily amid robust talking and unbridled laughter.
Food: The standard meal is dal bhat, a mixture of soupy lentils and rice. Of course, there are usually onions, spices and other vegetables to add color and flavor. Many times I did see steamed vegetables served alongside. Most meals are vegetarian based but you can find chicken, fish, and other meats although the Hindus do not eat beef. Another traditional food is the delicious “momo”, a dumpling stuffed with vegetables or meat.
You can also find good Thai food and a couple of good pizza restaurants in Kathmandu. For pizza, I suggest Fire and Ice, an Italian restaurant offering pizza and ice cream. It was just as good as any pizza I’ve had in Italy.
Where to stay: For those requiring “western” comforts there is a Radisson hotel that felt like glutenous extravagance after hiking for several days and staying in the local teahouses with no heat and cold showers. They even offer the luxury of laundry service! Many of the small to mid size hotels are clean and basic and very affordable.