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A long time ago in a life that seems so distant now, I sat in the Calgary International Airport with a one way ticket to Nepal in my hand. For years I’d wanted to go, having watched every documentary on Nepal and Mount Everest that I could find. A fascination with the massive monolith Himalayan mountains, the colourful prayer flags, the chaos of Kathmandu and the culture so polarizing to my own had been stirring in the back of my mind for years. I’ve never been great at relinquishing control and embracing unexpected changes, so during a period of significant change in my life I planned to seek clarity in Nepal. Sometimes sitting in an airport lounge contemplating life over a gin and tonic brings about some clarity on its own, and I never did get on that plane. I reached out to an old friend for advice and decided that Nepal would have to wait, while I dealt with the challenges that change brought about. A few months later, in a more structured manner, I attempted to arrange a trip to Nepal again but due to logistical issues I ended up in Sri Lanka instead – which unbeknownst to me at the time, was exactly where I needed to go with just the right people I needed to go with. It was the country that opened up my eyes to another way of living, reignited a passion for travel, built patience, taught me to say yes to new experiences that were outside of my comfort zone and prepared me for the chaos of countries like Morocco, Vietnam and Nepal.
Nepal remained in the back of my head for a long time. A few times I tried to plan a trip here, but each time something got in the way. When in 2015 I was close to finally realizing this dream, a catastrophic earthquake hit Nepal decimating infrastructure and delaying my trip yet again. Several years and countless countries later, I’m finally here in Nepal to complete my gap year travels.
I’m here, and it’s everything I’d hoped it would be and more. The aftermath of the Earthquake still ever present and visible, the spirit, strength and resiliency of the Nepali people is even more overwhelming and inspiring than I’d expected. The prayer flags even more colourful and abundant. It takes a big mountain to impress a Canadian Rockies boy, and the Himalayas have captivated me and my camera lens over the last week trekking through them constantly stopping to take in the view. In a country that’s changing rapidly, the one thing I can tell you with certainty will not change is my desire to return as soon as possible.
I arrived at Kathmandu airport via Malaysian Airlines, and if that wasn’t frightening enough in and of itself – we landed during a hail storm in what I’m told is one of the most difficult airports to land at in all of Asia. After a turbulent ride and a couple of power outages that left customs agents without any technology I finally managed to get my visa and enter Nepal. I walked out of the airport and was met by a Habitat for Humanity representative and several of my build team mates. I chose to start my time in Nepal with Habitat for Humanity as I’ve done in several other countries during my travels because I love the work they do, the community involvement and the sustainable structure of the program. We headed for our hotel, The Holy Himalaya Hotel in the heart of Kathmandu’s Thamel tourist district.
Thamel is a wonderful chaotic mix of cars, motorcycles, cows, dogs, chickens, monkeys and pedestrians of both the tourist and local variety. The streets are lined with shops selling amazing handicrafts, Khukuri knives, Tibetan singing bowls, Yak wool products and cashmere textiles. Rickshaw drivers will put their “A game” charm on trying to get you to accept a ride from them or buy their hashish – which they hock with reckless abandon to anyone and everyone regardless of your appearance or the presence of police. Cart vendors sell fruit or flavoured popcorn – both of which I’d advise against if you want to avoid spending your trip in the bathroom and a hefty round of Azithro. Small Hindu temples or Buddhist Pagoda’s hide around every corner, with the aroma of incense lingering in the air around them. There’s ample bars with live music at night and loads of great restaurants serving everything from local delicacies like momo’s (steamed or fried dumplings full of vegetables, meat, or a combination of both) to proper Neapolitan wood fired pizza (check out Fire & Ice if you’re craving some western food). Thamel to me is the perfect balance of chaos and charm, home and away, tourists and locals. It’s touristy, but not kitschy. It’s unintentionally touristy. If you’re looking for a great place to stay, the Holy Himalaya offers great ambience, unlimited coffee, cappuccino, a variety of teas (try the local Masala Chai), and a great breakfast all for less than 50 bucks a night. The location is perfect too.
We were so fortunate to arrive in time for the Holi festival in Nepal. Holi is known as the “festival of colours” and falls sometime in late February or March during a full moon. The festival signifies forgiveness, the reparation of relationships and the triumph of good over evil. For many it’s sort of a “reset” button. People walk the streets with bags of coloured powder (corn starch, I believe) and rub it on each others face or toss it in the air coating everything. It’s a rather intimate experience with strangers that I found quite moving albeit a bit uncomfortable at times. Everything and everyone is fair game – rich, poor, old, young, human, dog, cow – if you’re outside on Holi, you’re probably going to get some colour. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my travel career. I was so lucky to be here and even more lucky to share the experience with friends. At the end of the day we were all exhausted and absolutely drenched in colour. Personal boundaries were crossed, sure. Some of us had a few fingers in our mouths throughout the day. Some of us drank dyed puddle water from balloons tossed our way. Some of us ended up puking for a day afterwards and probably have parasites now. But despite this push outside of our comfort zones, the experience was one to remember for everyone involved.
After a tour around Kathmandu and with the Holi festival complete, our team boarded a small plane with Yeti Airlines bound for Biratnager in the south east corner of Nepal. From here we drove near to the Indian border to a city called Japha where we would spend the next week working.
In Kathmandu you’re not likely to get too many second glances. It’s unlikely anyone will want a selfie with you. You’re just another backpacker getting ready to trek the Himalaya’s. But in Japha you’re going to get some second looks. You might feel like the paparazzi is following you around everywhere you go. You might even start to understand why Justin Bieber is such an asshole. This isn’t a part of Nepal that tourists visit. In Nepal over 40% of people live below the poverty line, and in this area poverty is a huge problem. Nepal’s economy is nearly 70% based on tourism, so in an area with no tourists there is extreme poverty.
We arrived to a small community on the outskirts of Japha where we found a bamboo shell for a home well under way. Our team started cutting and weaving bamboo for interior walls, and preparing the “plaster” for the outside and inside walls. When I was a kid I loved playing in the mud, so this would be a breeze I figured. We started mixing the mud plaster. Dirt, check. Water, check. Hay, check. Cow shit, check. Wait… cow shit? An entire week of poop jokes and slinging shit at walls. Cow dung is a binding agent that prevents termites. It’s used to make mud plaster that coats the walls of bamboo homes. It’s strong, insulating and cheap – or so I’m told, and who am I to ask construction questions, really?
Over the next few days our team of 19 finished two identical homes for two very deserving families. In Nepal there is a cast system, and if you are unlucky enough to be born into the bottom of it you’ll never get out. There’s no intermarrying between casts, and at the bottom end of that spectrum you cannot even work. The families moving into these homes were in the lowest cast, unable to work and plagued with health issues. At the build site I was on the mother worked along side us all day every day, always expressing her gratitude. I’m so grateful to the donors that helped make this happen. Your donations not only built this house, but they helped make sure this program can continue to help others in this area affected by poverty and ensure sustainability in the community and opportunity for future generations.
With our build complete we headed back to Kathmandu to say goodbye to our team mates, and I continued on with my travels through Nepal. I was lucky enough to be joined by my long time friend Melissa for some trekking in the Annapurna region of Nepal. Melissa and I met during a high school exchange program in Japan in 2000 and have been friends since. We decided to trek to Annapurna basecamp but unfortunately when we left for our trek there was a terrible avalanche that took the lives of four people and left access to basecamp cut off. Our guide adjusted the route and we headed for Poon Hill above Ghoripani instead.
Each day we trekked around 15KM, sometimes more, sometimes a little less. In Nepal they have a saying: “Nepali Flat: Little up, little down”. Our experience was that flat is rare. You go up, and up, and up, and just when you think you’ve reached the top you go up a little more. Then you go all the way back down the other side and up again. I think we climbed and descended 100,000 stairs in a week. We ended each day the best kind of sore and exhausted. It took 4 days, some yoga, and a whole lot of physiotherapy thanks to Melissa’s former career as an athletic therapist for my legs to return to normal.
We chose to trek with a guide and a porter, not so much because we needed to but because we felt it was the right thing to do. The trekking industry in Nepal has created much needed jobs and spin off industries throughout the country. With the economy so dependant on tourism and prices very reasonable we felt it best to support the economy and hire a guide. Having done the trek now though, I’d be comfortable advising experienced hikers with a GPS and Guidebook that they could go on their own without issue. We used Mountain Mart Trekking and found the service to be reliable, flexible and professional. Their prices were amongst the best of anyone we met on the trail and our package was all inclusive with only the odd beer or cider an extra expense.
We met with our trekking company in Kathmandu and were provided with down sleeping bags and plane tickets to Pokhara. Our guides met us at the airport and we headed immediately for the trail. The first day was an easy leg grinder up to Pothana where we had our first tea house experience. Rooms at the tea house are very basic, no heat, shared bathroom, few amenities – but after a long climb up they are a very welcome respite. Along the Annapurna Circuit they all serve the same basic menu, but surprisingly enough the food was really quite good. We drank a lot of ginger lemon tea while curing ourselves of the ever present “Kathmandu Cough” brought on by the air pollution that lingers in the worlds second most polluted city and leaves your throat scratchy and snot black (sorry for the mental picture, it’s a gross truth). Dal Bhat is the common food, a lentil based soup with rice – not my favourite. The vegetable curry, chicken curry, and momo’s along the trek were wonderful. The tea houses all have gardens where they grow everything, and all food is made from scratch for very reasonable prices. Don’t forget to try the apple pie along the way, each tea house has their own spin on it and the Annapurna Circuit is known as the “Apple Pie Trek” for a reason.
Melissa and I are both avid hikers and in relatively good shape, so we made good time and most days felt that we could have continued a bit further. While we spent our first night in Pothana, I would actually recommend that you continue a bit further to Deurali which provides a very nice panoramic view of Annapurna South which isn’t visible from Pothana. From there we headed to Jhinu, a very long day where we were joined part way through by our mountain guide dog which we affectionately named “Dave”. There are stray dogs all along the trail, and they are in much better condition than the dogs you’ll see in the city. The one pictured above had a broken leg, but a trekker built a splint for it and he seemed to be in good spirits. It seems that they often join groups of trekkers from one town to another being fed by local kids and tourists alike. Eventually they decide to join a different group and go in another direction. Dave followed us to a large suspension bridge where he was attacked by another dog – after I broke up the fight with my dog whispering skills (perhaps I should list that on my resume?) he was attached to me at the hip and when we crossed the bridge he stood, afraid, on the other side howling at us as we walked away. He rushed down to the raging river below and tried to find safe passage but couldn’t. I worried he might die trying and asked our guide if I could go back for him. In the end, I carried Dave across the long bridge and he stayed with us for two days until we met a group of German hikers heading back toward the town in which he joined us. They promised to carry him across the bridge and get him back to Landruk, just in case someone might have been missing him there. Wherever he ends up, I’m sure he’ll be fine and well fed along the Annapurna circuit. Admittedly, I started googling the process to rescue a Nepali dog and get it back to Canada – something told me as I carried Dave across that bridge that he was going to cost me a lot of money. Turns out, it’s no easy feat so don’t get too attached if you meet one of these dogs on your trek.
From Jhinu we continued up the mountain to Chhomrong where we had to make the tough decision to change track from Annapurna Base Camp to Poon Hill due to the avalanche. No groups were being allowed into base camp and the conditions were considered unsafe and unstable. This was a huge disappointment to Melissa and I, but flexibility is key with travel so we chose to accept it and move forward. I’d already decided to return soon for Everest Base Camp anyways, and looked forward to the views from Poon Hill enticing me to come back soon. We spent a night in Chilu, and then with an early morning departure headed for Ghoripani, just below Poon Hill. This was a tough day, our knees swollen and calves tight. Our pace wasn’t quite as quick, but we finally arrived and cracked a Somersby Cider (our official drink in Nepal as it’s cheap and tasty) to cheers the accomplishment. Early to bed, we got up soon after to ascend Poon Hill for the sunrise.
Sunrise from Poon Hill is a Nepal Trekker’s right of passage. The hill is packed with other people waiting for the sun to peek over the Himalaya’s and warm the valley below with it’s light. The birds awoke shortly before the sun rose, their song filling the air as it warmed. We enjoyed hot chocolate from the tea house on the hill and took hundreds of photos as if we had never watched a sun rise before. Shortly after the sun was up, the crowd made its way back
down the hill – but we stayed. If you wait a half hour you’ll have the hill virtually to yourself and the views remain just as astounding. Once we’d had our fill, we descended back to Ghoripani to enjoy a big breakfast before starting our descent back to civilization. Our legs recharged, we made a quick pace and part way through the day decided we had the energy and speed to make it all the way down that afternoon and chose to end our hike early as we’d seen what we came to see. At the bottom we boarded a jeep that rode down the bumpiest, craziest road I’d been on in my travels and several hours later we arrived back in Pokhara where we filled our curry tired bellies with pizza and beer.
Pokhara is a welcome escape from the craziness of Kathmandu, with significantly better air quality and a more mountain town feel. It’s very touristy, but we enjoyed a few nights there never the less. A yoga class at Busy Bee’s Cafe was a welcome relief to our sore legs, which we promptly destroyed by taking a boat across the lake to hike up to the World Peace Stupa overlooking Pokhara. Pokhara has a wonderful coffee culture with small shops dotting the main streets and back roads throughout the city. Our favourite was right next to our hotel, the AM/PM Organic Cafe which served an incredible fresh breakfast of “Smoothie Bowls” (A Smoothie topped with granola and fruit) and the best waffle I’ve ever had. Nepali coffee is robust, strong and smooth – perhaps my favourite so far in a year of travel.
After a couple of days in Pokhara we headed back to Kathmandu where I am now, walking about the city doing some shopping and enjoying the craziness. I would be remiss not to share an experience that I had a couple of days ago which I haven’t quite processed yet.
Through a friend of Melissa’s we came to know about a small organization called “the Twin Otters” safe house in Kathmandu. The safe house is run by Khemraj Puri, who himself was a “street kid” in his youth. We arranged to meet Khemraj and visit the safe house to see what kind of work he was doing. Khemraj’s story can be found here. Using his own money, borrowed money from the bank, and small donations from friends, families and the occasional foreign donor he has setup a home for four boys rescued from the streets of Damak, just near where we were building homes in South East Nepal. We met these boys, happy, healthy and in the midst of exams at their school. They are learning english as well as basic skills after being put through an intensive meditation based drug rehabilitation program. Their stories are dark, and they’ve seen more darkness than most Westerners would see in their entire lives. To cope with the pain of abandonment by their parents, hunger, anxiety, and a myriad of other issues – they turn to sniffing glue. Each boy was addicted to glue, alcohol and cigarettes. They slept with street dogs in alley ways to keep warm. Khemraj showed us pictures and videos of the boys when he rescued them. To look at them today, you wouldn’t know they were the same people. He’s doing incredible work, with very little support. The Nepali government offers him no assistance, and has no social programs to help these children of the street who are considered to be from the lowest cast in the system. They are forgotten, they beg for money but use it for glue instead of food. There is no mechanism for foreigners to donate as paypal and other such services are forbidden in Nepal, only bank transfers can be used which prevents most people from donating to his cause. We made a small donation and brought him some supplies, but I promised to share the work he is doing with others and will attempt to connect him with sister non profits in Canada that could perhaps help. If you’re interested in these boys stories, and the work that Khemraj is doing please visit www.thetwinotters.org and consider making a donation. I can confirm that any money donated is being used properly and going to the right place.
My time in Nepal coming to an end, I’ve been reflecting on this trip from the roof of my hotel the last couple of nights trying to come to terms with my expectations of it and the reality that I was part of. It shattered my expectations both good and bad. The incredible beauty in the details of Kathmandu, contrasted with the overwhelming air pollution of the worlds second most polluted city. The magnificence of the Himalayan mountains dotted with charming tea houses and colourful prayer flags contrasted with a people still recovering from devastating natural disaster and extreme poverty. The positive and negative effects of an economy so dependant on tourism. In travel, we take the good with the bad. Nepal is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been, and I’ll most certainly return as soon as I can. If you love to travel, if you love adventure, if your comfort zone extends beyond most people – you will love it here. Come with an open mind, an open heart, and lots of energy. You will not be disappointed. This place isn’t for everyone, but it’s definitely for me and until I can return…
TL:DR Version Travel Tips:
- Be prepared for the landing in Kathmandu. Planes descend very quickly at near emergency landing simulation speeds. You’re not crashing, you’re just being prepared for the chaos of the city.
- Don’t give money to street kids. You aren’t helping any situation, you’re making it worse even if it makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside. If you want to help, find a reputable organization that’s doing good work here such at the Twin Otters or Habitat for Humanity. If you feel so inclined, buy the kids some hot food or give them some clothing you don’t need. Cash just goes to drugs, booze, or cigarettes – or to abusive parents that will use the cash on the aforementioned drugs, booze or cigarettes.
- Like everywhere else in Asia – Haggle on everything. Even if it says fixed price. Start at half of the first price they give you, be prepared to walk away. Taxi cabs are at the top of this list. Set a price in your mind that you’re willing to pay, and if you’re not comfortable then don’t buy it. Try to see the forest for the trees and remember that 50 rupees is 50 cents US, these people are trying to make a living and even an unemployed bum like me won’t haggle over that.
- Stay at the Holy Himalaya – it’s cheap, well located, clean, comfortable and has awesome breakfast. Service is excellent and the coffee is even better (bottomless and available all day). They’ll store your bags for you while you trek as well, and then you just come back for your last night(s) in Kathmandu making it very convenient.
- Trekking gear is available in abundance in both Kathmandu and Pokhara. There’s no need to bring your entire kit with you. Decent knock off hiking pants are available for around 30-40USD. Knock off Goretex jackets are a bit less. Hiking boots are everywhere, though I would recommend you bring a good set from home – that’s not a place to cut corners. Sleeping bags are easy to get and most trekking companies provide them anyways. Yak wool hats and gloves are sold everywhere and are excellent quality, very warm, and will run you around 5USD for a set. Cool tee shirts are sold everywhere for 3-4USD each.
- Pack light and bring a day pack. If you hire a trekking guide it will probably come with a porter. The porter will haul the big bag (try to go easy on them, you don’t need the kitchen sink) and you’ll carry your day pack with rain jacket, camera, water, etc.
- Bring hand sanitizer. Sanitation is problem here, use it often.
- Wear a mask in the city. The earth quake has left dust everywhere, and the streets are still a mess. Power brownouts are frequent so diesel generators run often. Your snot will be black and you’re throat will be sore if you spend too much time walking the streets of Kathmandu. A mask helps, and frequent tea breaks do too.
- They have wonderful shopping here if you’re looking for souveniers. Khukuri knives are beautiful and very functional, but most of what you see in Thamel are cheap display pieces. If you want the real deal, check out “Gorkha Zone” (link to Trip Advisor reviews here) and they’ll set you off in the right direction. They have the cheap stuff, and the real stuff and he’ll demonstrate the difference to you and sell you whatever you’d prefer. He’s a straight shooter and I highly recommend a visit. I bought two large Khukuris and a small one for around 100USD – a small negotiated discount, but I was comfortable with the price and quality (mine are the carbon steel, functional variety). Singing bowls are also a common gift, and most of what you’ll see are machine made display pieces – but if you leave Thamel and look around Durbar square for stores selling singing bowls exclusively they will show you the hand made ones which are typically free of the funky designs and have a more appealing sound. This is a tough one to tell, and you should negotiate heavily. I paid 3000 Rupees for two mid size bowls and a small one, but it was done by weight and the negotiation on this one was long and tough. Pay what you’re comfortable with and get what you want. Let’s face it, they’ll probably end up full of skittles rather than aligning your chakras or whatever monkey business you think you’ll use them for.
- If a guide of any sort takes you to a store, buy nothing. You’re paying the highest possible price and they are getting a commission. There are zero exceptions to this rule, and if you’ve been convinced otherwise you’ve had the yak wool pulled over your eyes.
- Dining – Fire and Ice in Thamel has incredible wood fired pizza, it’s lined up most evenings for a reason. They have great Nepali food as well, but after a few weeks of Dal and Curry you’ll probably want some pizza. The Road House is another great option with reasonable prices. Momo’s are available everywhere and are especially wonderful on the Annapurna circuit where everything is made fresh. Buffalo meat is common, as is chicken – beef is not. Hinduism is the majority religion here and cows are considered sacred. We’ve eaten a lot of vegetarian cuisine on this trip (partly because I’m travelling with captain healthy, partly because refrigeration and power is an issue and I don’t want food poisoning again).
- If you fly domestically within Nepal, use Yeti airlines. You’ll find significantly less horror stories about them, and we found the flights to be quite comfortable with good service and relatively on time compared to other airlines.
- If someone comes up to you in a tourist area and is overly friendly and chatty, they are trying to scam you or sell you something. Politely excuse yourself, and if it doesn’t work then get agitated and tell them to leave you alone.