My niece is spending a semester abroad in Nepal. In honor of her adventure, it’s time I finally publish our adventure in Nepal… from… ahem… two years ago. So yeah, that pregnancy and baby thing really set me back on our travel posts. Better late than never! We booked our trip with grand expectations. Himalayan adventures in films and magazines put Nepal at the top of our list. We were living in Abu Dhabi and given that Kathmandu was a four hour flight, we didn’t hesitate to book a trip.
Our dream for Nepal consisted of a strenuous multi-week adventure to the remote regions of the Himalayas but we only had a few days so we decided on a multi-DAY trek instead. If Nepal was as amazing as we hoped, we would return.
So here’s the big take-a-way. Our trip didn’t meet our expectations and was a disappointment. Fortunately though, Sabine is experiencing a very different Nepal. One that is living up to her expectations. Her pictures and stories are making me want to go back and recreate our dream adventure. But for now, here is our trip in a nutshell. And maybe a few things to think about if you decide to plan a visit.
I’m a glass half full kind of gal so starting with the negatives feels off but since there are lessons in our negatives, it’s where I’m going to begin. I’ll save the highlights for last.
Our tour company
We booked with Swiss Nepal Family Trekking and Expedition. The company was disorganized. This led to a long confusing drive from the airport into the dark suburbs of Kathmandu, with a driver who barely spoke English, and me creating scenarios in my head about our family starring in the next “abducted tourist” story.
The disorganization of the company also led to complications trying to pay for our trip. We arrived, were headed into the dark suburbs, and hadn’t paid for anything. Shady.
In order to coordinate payment, we waited with our guide in the back of a truck on a street corner in Kathmandu while the maid from the owner’s house came to town to allegedly drop off a new credit card swiping machine. Keep in mind that while we waited… none of this was communicated to us. Abducted tourist plot thickens… We demanded to speak to the owner of the company. Through choppy cell service, he explained the situation while jogging on a treadmill in another country. Hmmm…
As we left Kathmandu to Pokhara, our car served as a taxi to some of the driver’s friends. We picked up a few guys on a street corner and dropped them off somewhere else in town. We are all about ride sharing but no one told us what was going on. Confusing when it’s your first time in a country, you don’t speak the language, and your itinerary mentions nothing about serving as a taxi.
The porters (that we DID NOT ask for AND had no idea were coming) crammed in the back of the truck, on top of our luggage. Apparently they were supposed to take different transportation to Pokhara? Again- no big deal… but we didn’t know who they were or what they were doing on top of our backpacks.
The car had no air conditioning which normally isn’t a problem except that September in Nepal is hot and muggy. I am prone to car sickness and the road to Pokhara is winding and slow. The roads meander through clouds of car exhaust so when I rolled down the windows to cool off and ease the nausea, I’d breathe in black smoke. We saved a couple hundred dollars by driving but we think riding in a more comfortable car (with air conditioning) or flying would have contributed to a happier overall experience.
The trails are busy. And not just with tourists. These trails are the throughways for all foot and animal traffic between villages.
Every cow, horse, sheep, donkey and goat who walks these trails also uses the trails as a toilet. At some points on the trek it was hard to enjoy the view because I was busy watching my step. I was told that the farther you get from the villages the better it gets which makes sense but given the short duration of our trip we were in and out of villages every day. And the rain didn’t help. The rain washed poop from the hillsides onto the already poopy trails creating little poop rivers.
We had a guide. You don’t need a guide. I wish we hadn’t used a guide. We found out a few weeks after our trip that our guide was suffering from PTSD. We arrived 6 months after the spring 2015 earthquakes which destroyed a portion of the country. Our guide’s home was included in this destruction. He and his family were living in a tent camp in Kathmandu. After seeing Kathmandu, I can only imagine the state of his living conditions. No one told us his situation so I spent the trip wondering why he was shockingly quiet and unable to answer my questions about the country. Again- an understandable situation. My heart broke for him. But he never told the owner of the company which means the owner of the company couldn’t tell us.
Having a guide for this area around Pokhara is unnecessary. This is an extremely well marked and popular trail system. Booking accommodations on the spot when arriving in a village would have been no problem in September when we were traveling. We decided on a guide because
We didn’t have much time to prep or plan our trip
Our backpacking and outdoor gear was in storage in the US so we needed to borrow gear.
We had very little flexibility with dates.
Don’t leave your good outdoor clothes and gear at home. We ended up hiking the entire way with a pink leopard print umbrella we picked up in town. That being said,
The knock-off hiking gear available to buy in Pokhara was cheap, we bought a “Leki” hiking pole for $5 and you could fully outfit a trip there for very little money.
September in Nepal is hot.
I didn’t have the right clothes. I had the right clothes for hiking in southern California but Nepal is a modest country. I was uncomfortable in my running shorts. Pack appropriately. Lightweight, modest clothing is a must.
Leeches suck.I don’t know what to tell you about them. They weren’t great in Sept. I hear they are seasonal. Picture is my ankle after I pulled off a leech. I found them in my shoes too. They wiggle through mesh.
We came 8,000 miles (yes only 4 hours from Abu Dhabi but a long way from Southern California) to see the Himalayas and guess what? There was cloud cover the entire time. We hiked in The Himalayas for four days and never saw them. I love mountains and it was the only part of the trip I was counting on. Not seeing one snow covered peak was a big big BIG disappointment. Picture on the left is us in front of the Himalayas. Picture on the right is what we were supposed to see!
Our one day to tour Kathmandu was terrible. We had very little time so I asked our guide if he could take us to two or three of the “must sees” and a market area for browsing.
Boudhanath Stupa was our first stop. For a place considered to be one of the most important centers of Tibetan buddhism, it looked like a giant half of an old ping pong ball. I asked our guide questions hoping to understand more about the temple and received little information in return. After our trip I learned it was damaged in the earthquake. Which explains the construction. If you end up here, hire someone to give you a proper tour so you can appreciate what’s supposed to be a special place. We did really enjoy the prayer wheels and the wheels are a great way to occupy a busy toddler.
Pashupatinath Temple. If you can get past the bridge without being attacked or pooped on by a wild monkey then maybe you should go in. It didn’t look enticing so we wandered around, looked at the monkeys and brown river, and decided to bail.
I was so exhausted from the city and frustrated with our tour guide that we chose sitting in the airport over wandering a market.
Kathmandu is densely populated and according to World List Mania, Nepal is the 4th poorest country in Asia. Coming in after Afghanistan and Yemen. To give you another idea about where it ranks in comparison to other countries in the world, check out this Global Finance Rating. Due to the earthquake’s displacement of over 2 million people, the state of the country was even worse when we were there. I know this impacted our impressions. I was not prepared. We have traveled to many third world countries but Kathmandu, post earthquake, was an entirely new level of third world. One where human suffering was staring us in the face. I was afraid someone was going to take the clothes off my back and run off with our three year old. I wish I had been more prepared, I wish I had done my research, I wish I could have done something to help. It takes time to shake your privilege when traveling to post-disaster areas and time to adjust to suffering. It also takes time to learn how our privilege can be of service.
If you can overcome the air quality, the 6 hr drive from Kathmandu to Pokhara did give us some beautiful views of the lush landscape and the treat of seeing dozens of suspension bridges. We drove by small villages and witnessed the magnitude of lush green trees covering the hillsides.
Pokhara was pretty cool. (click on pictures for captions). We stayed at the Hotel Orchid which was great.
Day 2 and 3 of our hike were pretty. These days were slightly more remote and we enjoyed these days the most. Unfortunately, it took a full day of driving and a full day of hiking (both directions) for two days of pretty. Our advice is to set aside 10-12 days once you arrive to truly enjoy the Himalayas.
Watching the porters hired for big group treks is a valuable shift in perspective. Their shoes don’t fit, they carry bags on their heads and their clothing is torn. It will make you think twice before complaining that your $150 hiking boots are giving you blisters. These guys effortly move over rugged terrain carrying very heavy loads. Watching them is humbling.
Besides carrying heavy loads for tourists, many locals are carrying food and supplies to their own farms and businesses. The mountain residents are in outstanding physical shape.
The villages and hiking trails are stunning. A huge portion of the trails between the towns and up the mountains are made out of stone. You walk on paths that have been used for centuries. Both the trails and the homes are built into the hillside which makes the scenery spectacular.
It was eye opening to see children as young as five commute (by foot) a few miles to and from school every day. Hopping and skipping over the cobblestones with smiles on their faces.
My favorite thing about Nepal was how you say, “Hello.” It’s “Namaste.” “The light within me recognizes and sees the light within you.” Just thinking those wordswhile saying, “Namaste” shifts my perception upon greeting a stranger. Are they a stranger anymore if I am recognizing the light within them? Best greeting ever.
Prayer wheels are awesome.
The big take-a-way:
PLAN, communicate, work with a reputable company, and do your research. Prepare for spending time in a poverty stricken country and figure out how you can give some of what you have to help people who have less.
Here is a 5m movie of our video footage set to music. Because we spent so much time walking, the footage is a little shaky. We have since invested in a stabilization device!
To read more about Nepal and the wonderful experience my niece is having integrating in the culture click here to check out Sabine’s blog.