Admittedly we didn’t put a ton of thought into visiting Nepal before we got to northern India, but we’re really glad we took a few weeks to go there. The cities were okay, but the highlight of our trip was the trekking. It’s something that should have been on our bucket list all along, but we didn’t realize it until we found ourselves slipping and sliding in the Himalayas, feeling like kids again.
Nepal a Glance
Some Notes on the Cities
Kathmandu is a good starting point, as is the Lakeside neighborhood of Pokhara, a popular place to set off on treks. Both are tourist ghettos that can get old pretty quickly. But both neighborhoods have everything you might need as they’re completely saturated with travel agents, bars, restaurants, and gear shops replete with knock-off North Face gear. They’re also good places to shop around for cashmere, jewelry, and handicrafts.
Sadly our favorite place in Thamel, Pilgrim’s Book House, burned down during our visit. With a huge variety of books (including an up-to-date travel guide section), it was an important landmark for the area that won’t easily be replaced.
Kathmandu is also home to some important religious sites like the Boudhnath and Swayambunath Stupas, both easily reached from Thamel. If you have a couple of extra days, it’s worth paying them a visit to learn more about Nepali Buddhism and to check out the giant Wisdom Eyes staring out from each side of the main towers.
What Did We Learn?
After two months in India, it’s difficult to describe Nepal without comparing the country to her boisterous southerly neighbor. But it’s definitely a distinct country in its own right, and one that is home to a unique culture and many languages. We found our time there really relaxing, but if you’re just landing down you might still experience a bit of culture shock from the pollution and recurrent indifference to safety. For example, it’s a favorite pastime to ride on the roof of public buses since it’s much less crowded up top. And Kathmandu’s air quality is pretty abysmal.
After making it out of India relatively unscathed Eric and I both got sick in Nepal, which put us out of commission for almost two weeks. But in our experience the people were really welcoming, and there were less aggressive touts and more tourist infrastructure than India. Wi-Fi, for example, is available almost everywhere in Kathmandu and Pokhara. Power outages are very common (8-12 hours a day) since the supply of electricity is far lower than the demand. Each section of the major cities has a rotating schedule for when they’ll experience daily outages, so at least you can plan your frustration accordingly.
When dealing with travel business transactions like paying cabs, you still have to be on your toes. Bargaining is common here, although you’ll find that it’s not as aggressive as some places (India). You still can’t be surprised when people try to take you for a ride every so often. For example, there were several occasions when we agreed on a price beforehand and people decided to charge us more in the end.
The immigration officer charged us an extra $8 upon entering the country, and all three of us knew it was malarkey. A certain amount of this behavior should be expected and even tolerated, keeping in mind that the gross national income (GNI) per capita is around $700 a year.
Gender disparity is still prevalent in Nepal. Although I didn’t experience any harassment, people do still tend to speak to the male when possible, and women are often cast to the fringes like they may or may not exist – except, that is, when men see something they like. In that case women may receive a fair number of stares. Whatever, as long as they’re not grabbing at me I’m cool.
One fun (er, I guess not-so-fun) fact about Nepal is that in 2005 they finally banned chhaupadi, the practice of banishing women to cow sheds for the duration of their menstrual cycles. This was most common in western rural areas, and unsurprisingly, the law hasn’t been completely effective in eradicating such idiocy. But progress is progress, I suppose.
Our Best Memory
Trekking in the Himalayas has a way of making you feel infinitesimally small amid rugged, unforgiving giants. It’s fantastic. As Eric said in our trekking article, ours was probably the easiest route that you can take in that region and it was still a challenge for us. But it was therapeutic to be detached and unplug for a few days. After our first day of the Poon Hill trek, we reached a tiny village where we stayed over with our new friend Alice. We drank beer, shared stories and sang songs, and I remember experiencing overwhelming contentment. I think our Colorado friends would agree that the mountains have a way of putting things into perspective.
Would We Return (aka What Did We Miss)?
We’d definitely go back to Nepal. If we did, we’d bypass the cities as much as possible and see more of the Annapurna Circuit, or hike through Langtang. With some training, perhaps we’d even take on Everest Base Camp. The Nepali people are by no means homogenous, and one could spend a lot of time learning about the many different ethnic groups and languages there. We’d certainly take a cooking class and go see the rhinos in Chitwan National Park. It would be nice to take more time to just absorb all the relaxing and recreational activities Nepal has to offer, and maybe knit a yak hair scarf in a mountain lodge somewhere. Also, there are numerous volunteering opportunities there. With the right organization it could be rewarding to teach English, help maintain trails, or work on projects that empower local women.
Conclusion…Should You Go?
Nepal is a colorful, beautiful country where many people live as they have for generations. Once you’re there, it’s also an extremely affordable place to visit – we spent just $40 a day for two people. The overall infrastructure in Nepal is poor, from the aforementioned power outages to mountain passes that are plagued with potholes. But if you love to be outside and don’t mind some challenges along the way, we think Nepal is a fantastic option for world travel.