Kathmandu May 14-18
As I expected, Nepal represented a huge change of pace in my travel. Unlike Southeast Asia, Nepal wasn’t nearly as full of tourists, and it most certainly wasn’t full of people looking to party. Kind of like how I felt in Myanmar, the travelers in Nepal were there for a reason. Actually, I would take that one step further and say many are there with a mission. Be it climbing Everest -or at least to it’s base camp – doing the complete 30 day hiking circuit around the Annapurna Mountain range, rafting, biking, yogaing(?), paragliding, animal spotting, or volunteering. You name it and there were tourists in Nepal fully passionate about it.
I think many people’s single minded focus on what they were there to do also played a role in the lack of the kind of friendly, easy-to-meet-people atmosphere I’ve been greeted with in almost every other country I’ve been to. However, this was also part of Nepal’s charm. With the exception of a few venues in Kathmandu, everyplace was very chilled, very intimate and very relaxing. And after the social feeding frenzy of SE Asia, I was up for a little time to just kind of sit back and blend into the background. Well, blend in as much as a big black man can in Asia.
All that said, I had moved my departure time from SE Asia up a bit despite how much fun I was having in Cambodia so that I could meet up with two very good friends, Brad and Jessi, from, you guessed it, Korea. They had started their trip more than a year earlier. In fact, their last few nights in Korea before staring their trip were spent on my couch. I was ecstatic when I found out that we were going to be in Nepal at the same time, especially since we hadn’t planned it.
I met up with Jessi and Brad at my hotel in Kathmandu’s backpacker district, Thamel, literally just minutes after my arrival. It should be noted that Nepal’s first backpacker district was called “Freak Street,” which I guess speaks to the hippie nature of many of the first Westerns who traveled this part of the world. Because it was Buddha’s birthday, we headed right for the Monkey temple in the center of town. It was packed, festive and truly felt like a once in a lifetime experience.
The next couple of days we explored the chaotic, narrow, dusty and pothole-laden streets of Kathmandu. I can honestly admit to feeling overwhelmed at times as honking cars and motorbikes were constantly driving down these narrow streets and missing me by just inches each time and it required my full attention to keep it that way. Add to this the hoards of people, street merchants and beggars coming at me from seemingly every direction at once and I sometimes wanted to scream. Luckily, breaks from the chaos could be found all over the place by just ducking into any of the countless tiny doorways that led to spacious, secluded and peaceful courtyards.
Especially during those first few days, I couldn’t shake something that my friends kept saying. They had just come from spending four months in India and kept talking about how much less chaotic everything in Kathmandu (KTM) was. If KTM, this “India-lite” city, as they called it, already had me wanting to punch drivers in the face who honked too much, what the hell was India going to do to me?
After a few days in KTM purposely getting lost in its crazy backstreets, eating some really good food, catching some great live music, and even joining a pub trivia game, it was time to move on to Pokhara. Brad and I narrowly lost the trivia game, but we did get to meet Miss Nepal, 2011. The seven hour bus ride to Pokhara was full of some of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen. The bus first climbed over the tall mountains surrounding (KTM) and then drove on narrow, twisty-turny roads that followed a river in a deep valley gorge.
Pokhara May 18-24
Pokhara itself is Nepal’s second largest city with a million people. However, it has a small-town feel, at least the part that’s of any interest to tourists. That part is pretty much a few streets right by the lake the city is built around. There were tons of guest houses at all price ranges. There were also a lot of great restaurants like Godfather’s Pizza which was killing it when it comes to Italian food, and Everest Steakhouse which serves the biggest, cheapest and most delicious steaks I’ve had since my last trip home to America. I’m talking five bucks for like a pound of top-choice meat. There were also more than a few very relaxed bars to chill out in or catch some live music and, of course, a ton a travel agencies to help people arrange to go rafting, paragliding or trekking in the nearby Annapurna Mountain range.
The Annapurna range is part of the Himalayas and gave me my first glimpse of the snow capped, gargantuan mountains. While the views at this time of year weren’t the best, getting up early did often pay off and the one day when the mountains were in full view was just one of those moments in life I’ll never forget. How can anything be that big? And how could something that big remain hidden most of the day? I’m sure a better writer could turn this into a spectacular metaphor for something deep and meaningful, but I’ll just have to settle for saying it made me wonder if there are things equally as large and looming in our lives that we just don’t notice or see? Sadly, none of my pictures even come close to doing these mountains justice, so I won’t even bother to share them.
Sadly, my friends and I didn’t do any trekking there since one of them was recovering from an illness for the entire time we were together. However, we did motorbike around the mountains surrounding the lake, did some day hiking and took some very defective kayaks out onto the lake. The one I was in sank about ten minutes into our trip because of a hole or two, or ten. This forced me to swim a couple hundred meters to shore while Brad towed the half submerged boat back. After a heated argument with the guys who rented us the boats and getting a tourist cop involved, we were able to get half our money back. We only got half the money back because, according to the cop, it had taken us an hour to bring the half sunk boat back.
Chitwan May 24-26
From Pokhara, we went six hours south to Chitwan. The tiny town sits across the river from a national park teaming with wildlife including tigers, rhinos, wild elephants, deer, boars, tons of birds and other animals. We took a four hour walking tour in the park, but aside from seeing a peacock fly, a gray stork (the largest flying bird in the world) and two kinds of crocodiles, we didn’t see any of the big game animals that day. Still, the views were spectacular and we did get to see working elephants enjoying their daily bath in the river when we got back to town.
With the closing of the door to my little hut, I went from traveling with friends to traveling on my own again. Jessi and Brad had to move on, and I was just getting started in Nepal. A few hours after they left, I was walking along the river boundary of the park and came across a huge and rare one-horned rhino having a drink and instantly sent them a pic to make them feel bad for leaving me. To be fair, they had done the same to me and sent me a message that they had seen one on the way out of town. However, I had photographic evidence unlike those liars.
But still, for the first time in Nepal, I was all alone. Not that I didn’t enjoy my friends’ company, but I was also looking forward to being alone in Nepal especially since I wouldn’t feel antisocial if I didn’t go out of my way to talk to other people. Like I said earlier, travelers in Nepal are just kind of doing their own thing and unlike so many other places I’ve been traveling to, socializing required going out of my way, and I didn’t feel like doing that, and was glad most people there seemed to feel the same.
Limbini May 26-28
From Chitwan I headed to the nearby town of Limbini, about four hours west. The one and only draw to this place is the fact that it’s where Buddha was born. The town was tiny, dusty and HOT. While the land area housing and surrounding the exact spot Buddha was born is huge, there really isn’t much to it. I’ve been to many other Buddhist sites that I thought were infinitely more impressive.
However, it was cool that there were about a dozen monasteries each of which had an architectural style distinct to the country whose Buddhist community had built it. Truthfully, I think part of the reason I found the place underwhelming was because the planners of the site have a very long-term vision for it. The idea of making a development plan for a site that goes hundreds of years into the future is something very unfamiliar and, quite frankly, bizarre to me as an American where long term planning counts as knowing what you’re going to dress up as for Halloween a month in advance.
Anyway, the morning of my second day there, I got up early and checked out the furthest away temple on the complex one of one hundred World Peace Pagodas around the world, realized how hot it was already at 8 am, and decided to try to get out of town. However, I missed all the morning buses out of town and spent the rest of the day hiding from the heat before going back out in the slightly cooler evening air to look around the complex and the town a bit more.
Back to Pokhara May 26 – June 12
At this point in my trip, I had already given up on the idea of doing an Everest Trek on my own. The cost of getting there, the equipment I’d need to buy, hiring a guide and paying for all the permits involved made it cost prohibitive (about 800 bucks). I decided to go back to Pokhara, chill out and work on the book I’ve been trying to write about my time in South Korea. While I didn’t have a set time I expected to be there, I ended up staying two weeks.
This longer than expected stay there also meant I had to extend my Nepali visa. Luckily, there was a place to do it there, and it was as easy as filling out an online form, turning it in and paying about 30 bucks. I found a nice, friendly and very cheap guest house to stay at, I ate like a king every day for next to nothing and got to enjoy a bit of nightlife all while enjoying the natural beauty of the place and working on my book. And I still did some short hikes, motorbiking and even went paragliding since Pokhara is apparently one of the best places in the world to do it. There are only about 15 days out of the year when weather conditions won’t allow for it. My 35 minute flight was beyond words. Should I ever become a rich man, I will take up this rich man’s hobby.
Kathmandu and Surrounding Areas June 12 – July 1
After about four days in a row of planning and failing to leave Pokhara, I finally did after the first day of the World Cup. All the bars there were forced to actually follow the 11 o’clock curfew for the first time, and this meant I couldn’t see the first game. The next day I hightailed it back to KTM where I met up with another friend from Korea who had just gotten into the country. He was staying at a great place with a quiet, private rooftop and lots of cool people. We spent the next ten days chilling, watching the World Cup, eating well and doing some cool day trips to places like Bactapor, an amazing medieval town about 20km outside of KTM and full of what I can only describe as Romanesque water wells. (Tip, you ever go there, don’t pay the 15 dollars they ask for just to enter the city center. Walk around outside of the city center, and you’ll eventually find a way in without having to pay.)
I ended my stay in Nepal waiting for my India visa to come through (FYI, you need at least 8 days for it to process. However, India should have visas on arrival for all countries by October, 2014. But it’s only for a month and only for people who fly in.) While waiting for my visa, I went to the nearby mountain town of Nagorkot.
It’s the closest place to KTM to get a Himalayan view. However, once again, the time of year screwed me, and I didn’t see them at all. Still, the mountain top town and terraced rice fields surrounding it were worth the trip. And this is coming from a guy who, for some damn reason, got dropped off at the bottom of the mountain and had to walk 10ks up to the town from there. This turned out to be fortuitous since towards the end of my long walk, I very randomly ran into a friend from Korea riding down the hill on the back of a motorbike. I hadn’t realized she was in the country but found out she was running a guest house in KTM and that’s where I stayed my last three nights in the country watching the World Cup as I waited for my Indian visa, which took longer than expected to get.
This meant that, even after paying for one 15 day visa extension, I once again overstayed my Nepali visa. Luckily, this wasn’t a big deal because I wasn’t over the 150 day total foreigners are allowed to stay in the country any one year. I had to pay three dollars a day for each day I was over and pay 30 dollars to retroactively extend my visa, but I was able to do all this at the border on my way out of the country. However, to get out the country, I had to take one more overnight bus that blasted Indian music the whole way as it drove along the bumpy, swervy road to the border. However, this bus also forgot to drop me off at the border and took me an hour past my stop before flagging down another bus and putting me on it to go back to where I was supposed to be. That was the start of a very, very long day and a half of travel to get to Varanasi India, but that’s for next time.
Let me end by saying, -and I should have started with this- the people of Nepal are some of the warmest, nicest and most welcoming I’ve met anywhere. They are grateful for tourists and know how much their economy depends on them. However, their warmth is more sincere than that. There are some places in the world were people laugh and smile freely and where children run and play all the time and some where they don’t. Nepal is most certainly in the former category.