Snapshot Sunday: Trekking through the Tiger Leaping Gorge

[ptcPhoto filename=”TigerLeapingGorge640.jpg” title=”TLG” caption=”View from the Tea Horse Guest House in Tiger Leaping Gorge – Yunnan, China” position=”center”]

After a five hour hike culminating with the notoriously steep “28 Bends”, we stopped to rest at the Tea Horse Guest House. It was one of the best views we saw during our trek through the Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.

Looking Back: Nepal

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

  • Gross National Income (GNI) Per Capita: $700 – Low income
  • Size: 56,827 square miles (about the size of Iowa)
  • Population: 30 million people
  • Population Density: 1,297 people per square mile
  • Government Type: Federal Democratic Republic
  • Ranking on the Global Gender Gap Report: #123 of 135 countries surveyed, scoring very low in Political Empowerment and Economic Participation and Opportunity
  • Our Daily Budget (for two people): $40.53
  • 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.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”KCombo.jpg” title=”Shopping in Kathmandu” caption=”Shopping in Kathmandu” position=”center”]

    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.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”Pilgrims.jpg” title=”Pilgrim’s” caption=”Pilgrim’s before the fire” position=”center”]

    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.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”Stupa.jpg” title=”Swayambunath Stupa” caption=”The eyes are always watching” position=”center”]

    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.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”NepalRiver.jpg” title=”River in Kathmandu” caption=”The city’s rivers are pretty dirty too.” position=”center”]

    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.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”PrayerWheels.jpg” title=”Prayer Wheels” caption=”We should develop a way to store energy from prayer wheels” position=”center”]

    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.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”norickshaw.jpg” title=”No Problem” caption=”I love it when they try to sell you these shirts” position=”right”]

    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.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”PokharaLaundry.jpg” title=”Laundry on the Lake” caption=”The buffalo are helping” position=”center”]

    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.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”ViewGuestHouse.jpg” title=”Out the window” caption=”The view from our guest house on the first day” position=”center”]

    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.

    Snapshot Sunday: The Yuantong Temple

    [ptcPhoto filename=”YuantongTemple640.jpg” title=”Ishigaki Island” caption=”The Pavilion at Yuantong Temple – Kunming, Yunnan – China” position=”center”]

    With a history of more than 1,200 years, Kunming’s Yuantong Temple is the most important Buddhist temple in Yunnan Province. In addition to its elegant octagonal pavilion, the grounds are also home to two thirty-foot tall dragons – symbols of an emperor in Chinese feudal society.

    Click here to view a larger, detailed image.

    Japan Costs: $150 a Day

    Japan isn’t the best place for budget backpackers like us, but it’s such a great country we ended up spending six weeks there anyways. Cities like Kyoto and Tokyo can be prohibitively expensive, and at the one-month mark our daily average was up over $170! Strangely enough, spending a couple of weeks on a tropical island in Okinawa brought our daily average down and by the end we squeezed into our planned budget of $150.

    Just want the numbers? Skip to the bottom.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”IshigakiBeach.jpg” title=”IshigakiBeach” caption=”Sunset Beach in Ishigaki was all but deserted – and free to visit.” position=”center”]

    Given the steep price to travel in Japan, we had to find some ways to cut back. As always, we would have done better budget-wise had we focused on cutting food and lodging costs. But who wants to eat instant noodles when there’s delicious sushi everywhere? Actually the conveyor-belt sushi restaurants are usually a great deal, with plates (two pieces of nigiri) starting at around ¥150 ($1.50) each. Malls and department stores will generally have a handful of really good, reasonably priced restaurants tucked away on the basement floors, and ramen shops like Ippudo aren’t a bad deal either.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”ConveyorBelt.jpg” title=”Conveyor” caption=”A conveyor belt sushi restaurant in Kyoto” position=”center”]

    Also make sure you check out local grocers. They’ll have a large selection of tasty prepared foods, and prices are marked down in the evenings around 7:00 (sometimes you’ll find items up to 75% off!). Everything is prepared fresh daily, so there’s no need to worry about spoiled meals if you eat them within a day or two. Most hotels will have a fridge you can use, either in the room or in a common area. Worst-case scenario, do try their instant noodles – they’re surprisingly good. We also got into the habit of buying frozen packs of edamame (soybeans) and letting them defrost in the fridge or our backpack for a few hours. They make for an affordable, healthy snack.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”NaraEel.jpg” title=”Eel meal” caption=”One of our splurge meals – an eel restaurant in Nara” position=”center”]

    Lodging is another thing that’s pricey in Japan. On average we spent more than $60 a night, so in retrospect it would have been a good place for couch surfing. We’ve heard that people sleep overnight in internet cafes but didn’t try it ourselves. Also, some deals can be had on capsule hotels but many of them are for men only (and none of them are quite big enough for Eric’s 6’4″ body). Like in Korea, they also have Love Motels but we didn’t get a chance to stay in one.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”Tatami.jpg” title=”Tatami” caption=”Traditional tatami rooms are sometimes more affordable.” position=”center”]

    To save on transportation, stay far far away from taxi cabs. The flag will drop at $6 and climb with alarming speed. Countless articles will tell you that the JR (Japan Rail) pass is a good deal, but there’s no way it would have been a bargain for us. I won’t go into too much detail, but the cheapest rail pass (good for only seven days) is ¥37,800 ($378), and we only spent $354 each over the course of six weeks. You’d have to be moving VERY quickly and take the Shinkansen (bullet trains) everywhere to get your money’s worth out of a rail pass.

    If you do want to take the Shinkansen without a rail pass, look into what is called the Puratto Kodama, a discounted ticket that can be purchased at some major train stations. We bought a ticket a few days ahead of time and paid $98 each to travel on a (slightly slower) bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo – a savings of almost $40 each. Our transportation figures don’t include getting to Okinawa since we left Japan for a couple of months and then used miles to go back – flights from the mainland would have increased our in-country transportation costs considerably.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”BulletTrain.jpg” title=”Bullet train” caption=”Shinkansen trains go up to 320 kilometers (almost 200 miles) per hour.” position=”center”]

    It’s not hard to find free entertainment in Japan. During our time in Okinawa we borrowed snorkels from the guesthouse and hung out on the pristine beaches, which didn’t cost a thing. The cities are full of good deals too, though. For example, if you want to go to the Osaka Aquarium (highly recommended), grab a Kaiyu Pass for $26 a person. It covers entry to the aquarium and unlimited metro rides for the whole day. Tokyo in particular is packed with fun neighborhoods where you can just walk around snapping photos.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”Shinjuku.jpg” title=”Shinjuku” caption=”In Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood” position=”center”]

    Some attractions in Kyoto will cost more during autumn when the leaves change. I imagine it’s worth the extra cost to get up close to the Japanese maples in the traditional gardens – the rainbow of fall colors would make for some fantastic photos. Shrines are usually free, although some temples will charge a small fee to enter.

    One great thing about Japan is that there’s always something to see even if you’re just wandering around.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”Chest.jpg” title=”Chesty” caption=”Some things are entertaining because they’re confusing.” position=”center”]

    [ptcPhoto filename=”Escarator.jpg” title=”In Kyoto Station” caption=”This too – do you see it?” position=”center”]

    The daily average cost for our visit was $149.71 (or $74.86 per person per day), so we came in just under our goal of $150 a day.

    Here is a breakdown of all our costs during our stay. This table does not include costs to enter the country, which include a $200 ferry from South Korea the first time around, and a couple months later, a $40 flight from Taipei, Taiwan (we used miles for this flight and only paid taxes).

    Type of Expense Total Cost
    (for 41 days)
    Daily Average Notes
    Lodging $2,520.86 $61.48 Our lodging choices ranged in price from $33 in Ishigaki to $86 in Kyoto.
    Food $1,964.63 $47.92 We could have prepared more meals at the hotels, but Japanese food is way better than our cooking.
    Transportation (within country) $708.70 $17.29 You can save a lot if you take slower trains and buses – traveling between cities can be pricey.
    Entertainment $237.80 $5.80 Includes the Peace Park and Memorials in Hiroshima, the Osaka Aquarium, Todai-ji Temple in Nara, Sangusagendo Hall and the Silver and Golden Pavilions in Kyoto, karaoke in Tokyo, and bicycle rental on Taketomi Island.
    Alcohol $537.25 $13.10 Large cans of beer are about $2 in convenience stores.
    Incidentals $168.95 $4.12 Includes the costs for items like sunblock, internet, clothes and donations.
    Grand Total* $6,138.19 $149.71 *Total reflects expenses for two people. It does not reflect costs to enter the country (i.e., visas or airfare).

    Some Examples:

    Average cost of a sit-down dinner for two – ¥2500 ($25)
    Entry ticket for a traditional garden – ¥600 ($6)
    Metro fare in Tokyo – ¥160-300 ($1.60-$3.00)
    A good cup of matcha green tea – ¥500 ($5)

    Snapshot Sunday: Ishigaki from the Air

    [ptcPhoto filename=”Ishigaki640.jpg” title=”Ishigaki Island” caption=”View of Ishigaki from the plane – Ishigaki, Okinawa – Japan” position=”center”]

    Late typhoons in Okinawa prevented us from scuba diving during our two weeks in Ishigaki. But as we left we saw some beautiful views of the reefs that surround the island. We’ll have to save the manta rays for next time!

    Click here to view a larger, detailed image.