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Published: January 16th 2010
Namaste. That is the Nepalese way of saying hello, usually with two hands together in a prayer-like position.
Despite strikes, terrible roads, flight delays, daily power outages, mediocre food, upset stomachs, and a cold, I have really enjoyed my time in Nepal. After a few weeks of traveling alone, it was nice to be with people again. I stayed with a great host family in Kathmandu. I also met with my Polish friend Chopin, Kinga’s partner, and another Polish woman, Inez, who is making a film about Kinga (my friend who died while traveling in Africa a few years ago). She interviewed me for the film, and we traveled together for a few days, with another Polish girl, Ania. It was nice to see old friends, and meet new ones.
The experience with the host family here is what I hoped to find in Sri Lanka. A very warm and friendly family, calling me “Brother Jason”, or “Uncle” in the case of the kids. Always serving me tea, and making sure I have what I need. We ate every meal together - usually dahl baht, which means rice and lentils. This
is to Nepalese what tortillas, rice and beans are to Mexicans. You will definitely get your fill of it. The head of the family, Dawa, was a poor porter who has been supporting himself and his family since the age of 9. He taught himself several foreign languages by working with tourists, and befriended the third richest man in Denmark, who helped him buy a large house where his family now lives and hosts travelers. He also lived in the US and Denmark for several years each. Dawa runs an orphanage with 23 children, and I visited and gave each child a San Francisco postcard, some candy, an American $1 bill, and a picture of themselves I printed with my portable photo printer. Most of them never had a picture of themselves so they were quite excited, and people always enjoy seeing it print instantly. By the way, this small device (the size of an iPod) is one of the smartest things I brought with me, and I plan to keep traveling with it in the future.
A few days later, I returned with Dawa and Inez to the orphanage, and we took all the kids to the movies,
where we saw “Avatar”. For most of them, it was their first trip ever to a movie theater, an experience they will likely remember for many years. It feels good to do things like this, for the price of a nice dinner back home. If you’d like to help the orphanage, or stay with Dawa, please contact me.
In the Kathmandu valley, are a number of old towns, each containing many ancient temples and buildings and a large square, that is reminiscent of the town squares in Europe. Like in Europe, the streets in the square are closed to cars, and have many beautiful old buildings, cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops. There are several places like this in and around Kathmandu. Durbar Squares in Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur are well known, but I highly recommend the area around the Boudha Stupa. Most of the people living in this area are Tibetan refugees. The stupa is huge, and the square around it is a nice place to walk around and watch people, metal workshops, and souvenir shops. There are many monks and monasteries in this area, so despite the numerous souvenir shops, restaurants, etc. it manages to feel more spiritual
than commercial. The same can’t be said about Thamel, the main touristy area of Kathmandu. Except for two brief visits, I avoided it. I expected many more tourists, but apparently this is the low season for Nepal.
Nepal is the first time on this trip I have felt cold. During a month in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, I never needed more than a T-shirt, even at night. Here, the daytime temperature was very pleasant, but nighttime temperature was usually around 2 degrees Celsius (about 36 Fahrenheit). Depending where you live, this might not seem very cold, but there are no heaters anywhere, so I felt cold every night. I am usually not a tea drinker, but because I was cold, and it is served everywhere, I drank many cups of tea every day here.
Nepal is located between China and India, and most people look like they could be the children of one Chinese and one Indian parent. However, the language, culture, and cuisine are much closer to India than China. In Nepal, there is a lot of overlap between Hindu and Buddhist, the two predominant religions. It sometimes seems like there are more temples than houses.
The infrastructure is probably the poorest of any country I have visited outside Africa. In Kathmandu, power is out for 8 hours a day, and it is scheduled in advance. Many of the roads are dirt roads; the paved ones have many potholes. If these are the conditions in the capital, imagine the rest of the country. There was running water, but it was freezing, as if it came straight from the Himalayas, so I took bucket showers with boiled water.
To say Nepal has had political problems would be an understatement. Until 2008, it was a monarchy. In 2001, the prince killed his entire family. A civil war had been going on for many years between the Maoists and the government. In 2008, the Communists took over and abolished the monarchy. Other Maoist groups are unhappy with the government, and regularly call strikes. There was a strike when I was here, which meant all the shops are closed for the day and there is no transportation. If you drive, you risk your car being pelted with rocks or burned. 6 cars and 2 buses were burned during the most recent strike. Dawa, my host, had to pick up
Inez from the airport on foot, nearly a 2 hour walk each way.
I saw some pictures of incredibly beautiful places before coming to Nepal. When I tried to find out how to get there, I read it was a 15 or 20 day trek. One place, Barun Valley, looked stunning and is referred to in ancient writings as one of the sites of the mythical Shangri La. When I asked Dawa about going there, he said “It used to be a 40 day trek. Now they built a new road, so it’s only 27 days”. A round trip trek to Everest Base Camp from the nearest town accessible by road or plane is a minimum of 14 days. The Annapurna Circuit takes about three weeks. In other words, if you want to see the most amazing natural places here, make sure you have at least a month, and prepare to do a lot of trekking. The only other alternative is to pay thousands of dollars to fly to these remote places by helicopter (I was quoted about $3,000 for the roundtrip helicopter flight to Barun). I don’t have this kind of money or
time; and to be honest, not sure I would want to trek for 2 or 3 weeks even if I did, so I took a one hour mountain flight which flew by the Himalayas. They let the passengers go into the cockpit for about a minute each. Seeing Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, so close up was an incredible experience.
What was even more thrilling was paragliding in Pokhara. Pokhara is a large town by a lake, and many travelers use it as a gateway to the Annapurna trail. Paragliding is very popular with tourists who come there. Those who know me, know that I get motion sick very easily, that I threw up multiple times on a whalewatching boat in Iceland, same while skydiving, etc. So it should come as no surprise, that I vomited while paragliding over Pokhara. Still, the views of the mountains and lake were incredible, and I am glad I did it. I hope to go paragliding or hangliding again somewhere, someday. Maybe next time I’ll skip breakfast.
In Pokhara, I also visited a nearby Tibetan village. There are many Tibetan refugees living in Nepal. They look a
lot like the Nepalese, so the only way to tell (if you don’t understand either language) is by the women’s clothing. The Tibetans wear a kind of apron over their dresses.
I had nicer experiences interacting with people in Nepal than in Sri Lanka or Indonesia. It was also less aggressive, except for the Pokhara bus station, where 30 taxi drivers surrounded me as soon as I got off the bus. But I think people who will get the most from a visit here, will be either interested in Eastern religions (Buddhism and Hinduism; as these temples and monasteries are everywhere) and/or into trekking. If you fall into the former category, there are many monasteries where you can stay for a few dollars a night; and, believe me, you won’t run out of temples to visit. If you’re in the latter category, definitely allow enough time, go during the right season, and be prepared for the lack of infrastructure and creature comforts. If, like me, you are not very interested in religion or trekking, you’ll probably still enjoy Nepal. I know I did.
Tomorrow, I am flying from Kathmandu to the Kingdom of Bhutan, a Himalayan country with
only 700,000 people and limited interaction with the outside world (television was only legalized a few years ago). To go there, you have to pay about $200 a day and go on a guided tour. I am looking forward to exploring this remote and little known country.
To see all my photos from Nepal:
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