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.

    Nepal Costs: $40 a Day

    The cost to travel in Nepal is comparable to India: It’s extremely affordable! Hotels and food are priced even lower in Nepali cities than in India. The costs to trek can add up if you purchase new gear, but they are mostly offset by the low price of guesthouses in villages – some are only $3 a night for a basic room, and even that can be waived. Food and alcohol are understandably more expensive up in the mountains, since cars can only reach the lower villages and everything has to be taken up by porters or horses. (On the flip side of this, most garbage that is taken up is never taken back down, so please be sure to pack out as much as possible if you go trekking).

    The permits to trek on the Annapurna Circuit, including the TIMS card and park fees, add up to more than $30 per person. Looking back on it now that doesn’t seem like much at all, but at the time it seemed like a lot! It’s funny how your definition of “big ticket” can change so much. But if a full meal costs $4 and a hotel room is $7, things tend to get skewed.

    The daily average cost for our trip to Nepal was $40.53 (or $20.27 per person per day) which is about what we were expecting. Trekking didn’t increase our daily average, but had we paid for hotels it would have had an affect. Either way, traveling in Nepal is cheap cheap. If you are able to find local’s restaurants (which can be hard in places like Kathmandu’s Thamel neighborhood), I’d guess you can live in Nepal for less than some people’s daily Starbuck’s habit.

    Here is a breakdown of all our costs during our stay. This table does not include costs to enter the country, which included $42 for a cross-country bus from the Indian border and visa fees of $88 ($44 each).

    Type of Expense Total Cost
    (for 23 days)
    Daily Average Notes
    Lodging $157.57 $6.85 Our lodging choices ranged in price from $0 in the mountains (where we were able to pay for food and sleep for free) to $12.68 in Kathmandu.
    Food $506.54 $22.02 Local dishes like dal bhat are really inexpensive, but the Thamel neighborhood and trekking towns are a bit higher.
    Transportation (within country) $47.37 $2.06
    Entertainment $108.05 $4.70 Includes the Boudhanath and Swayambhunath Temples and trekking permits.
    Alcohol $84.22 $3.66
    Incidentals $28.53 $1.24 Includes the costs for items like sunblock, internet, and donations.
    Grand Total* $932.26 $40.53 *Total reflects expenses for two people. It does not reflect costs to enter the country (i.e., visas or airfare)

    Some Examples:

    1 L water – Rs.25 ($0.30)
    640ml beer from a wine shop – Ranged from Rs.135-180 ($1.50 – $2)
    Dinner at a local’s restaurant, per person – Rs.150 ($1.75)
    A small cup of chai – Rs.50 ($0.60)
    Western style breakfast – Rs.250 ($3)

    Trekking in Nepal…Wow

    Nepal!!! People come here for the Himalayas so we’re skipping over our time in Kathmandu and Pokhara to get right to the good stuff. Nepal is home to the tallest mountains on the planet. The sheer magnitude of these mountains is mind-boggling. It’s hard to capture in photos, but the peaks, even from a distance, go so much higher into the horizon than any mountains I’ve ever seen.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”MountainsOverPokhara.jpg” title=”Annapurna Range from Pokhara” caption=”Himalayas from Pokhara, Nepal” position=”center”]

    When most people think of trekking in Nepal they envision climbing Mount Everest or other such peaks where your life is on the line and you must be in absolute peak physical condition. While that sort of expedition is certainly available, most treks are far easier than you’d imagine.

    Nepal has what is known as “tea house trekking”. Tea house trekking is where you hike between the tiny mountain villages that dot the Nepal countryside, eating and sleeping in basic guest houses. This allows you to hike with a small pack since you don’t need sleeping bags, shelter, or food. The available lodging has rock hard beds, limited electricity, and no heat, but they provide plenty of blankets and hot food.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”trek4.jpg” title=”Basic accommodation” caption=”A simple place to stay” position=”center”]

    Pricing for rooms is extremely low. In fact, our friend Alice who accompanied us on the first few days of our trek let us in on a nice money saving secret: if you aren’t traveling in high season you should be able to get your room for FREE! When the hotel owner shows you your room simply say “pay for food, sleep for free” and you’ll have a free place to stay. This technique does require you to purchase all your meals at your hotel, but this is not really a downside as all of the guesthouses use the exact same menu and there are no other restaurants outside of the guest houses in the villages.

    The main meal you’ll be eating while trekking is a dal bhat. Dal bhat is the national dish of Nepal and what many locals eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It consistes of steamed rice, lentil soup (dal), and an assortment of mixed vegetables called tarkari. Second helpings are always free, and much welcomed after a day of hiking.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”DalBhat.jpg” title=”Dal Bhat” caption=”Yummy dal bhat” position=”center”]

    We chose to go on the Poon Hill Loop trek (also called the Ghorepani trek). This is one of the shorter and more popular treks as it takes about 5 days to complete and is considered relatively easy.

    Beware though, even the “easy” treks can be strenuous in Nepal. The Poon Hill trek included many segments of steep steps. The entire second day of the trek is uphill, so you also have to take altitude gain into account. However, the distances are short (6-7 miles per day) which leaves a number of hours to recover and relax at the next village.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”annapurnaSteps.jpg” title=”The end of the steps” caption=”Approaching our next stopping point” position=”center”]

    The first couple days were frustrating as the cloud cover would not let us get views of the mountains, but the beauty of the hills and forests along the way surprised us. Laligurans (rhododendron arboreum) is the national flower of Nepal. Unlike typical rhododendrons, the laligurans can grow to 30m tall and cover vast sections of the Himalayan hillsides. They only bloom for a few weeks every year and we were a week late, but the remnants of their blooming still enchanted us.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”trek11.jpg” title=”Rhododendrons” caption=”Rhododendron trees” position=”center”]

    The tiny mountain villages of Nepal were a joy to visit. People actually live in these towns. Hard working locals and hard working animals make visiting here possible.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”trek7.jpg” title=”A boy and his goat” caption=”A boy and his goat” position=”center”]

    [ptcPhoto filename=”trek8.jpg” title=”Seriously cute” caption=’Smallest goat in the world’ position=”center”]

    All that is nice, but we wanted MOUNTAINS! The pinnacle of the hike comes on day 3 where you get out an hour before daylight and make your way up to the peak of Poon Hill to see the sun rise over the Annapurna range. Sam, Alice and I woke up at a ridiculous 3:30am and unfortunately got lost before finding our way out of the town. This set us back a good 20 minutes and, due to the vertical nature of the hike up to the top of Poon Hill (it took Sam and I a while), we arrived to the peak 15 minutes after the sun had risen and the clouds had taken over.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”trek9.jpg” title=”Poon Hill Day 1″ caption=’Can you see the mountain peeking through the clouds?’ position=”center”]

    Sam and I decided to stay another night and attempt the sunrise hike again the next morning. While we easily made it to the peak before sunrise, the cloud coverage was much thicker this morning and the views were only slightly better. Getting up at 3:30am two days in a row with no payout made Sam an unhappy trekker.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”trek10.jpg” title=”Poon Hill Day 2″ caption=’Where are the mountains? (Yes I need a haircut)’ position=”center”]

    We left the hill and started heading down only to have the clouds start to open up. We rushed back up to the top and were able to finally score a couple pictures.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”ericAnnapurna.jpg” title=”Finally!” caption=’Finally!’ position=”center”]

    From Poon Hill we slogged through a long day of rain, muddy trails, and steep steps but found a wonderful guesthouse at the next village. We stayed here for 2 nights and were rewarded with some amazing views right outside our bedroom window.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”RoomWithAView.jpg” title=”Room With a View” caption=”That’s our room on the second floor overlooking the mountains” position=”center”]

    I mentioned this in the Snapshot Sunday, but these mountains range from 22,943 ft to 26,545 ft, nearly double the tallest mountains in the continental US.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”AnnapurnaSouth.jpg” title=”Annapurna South” caption=”Annapurna South at 23,684 ft as viewed out our free bedroom window” position=”center”]

    Simply put, if you’re going to Nepal it should be mandatory to go on a trek.

    And OK, one more tiny goat picture.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”TinyGoat.jpg” title=”Tiny Goat” position=”center”]

    Snapshot Sunday: Sunrise In the Land of Giants

    [ptcPhoto filename=”Annapurna640.jpg” title=”Annapurna Himalayan Range” caption=”Sunrise over the Annapurna Himalayan Range – Tadapani, Nepal” position=”center”]

    With peaks soaring nearly twice as high as the tallest mountains in the continental U.S., the peaks of the Annapurna Range in Nepal dominate the skyline. Taken moments before sunrise, this photo captures the holy mountain of Machhapuchhre (aka “Fishtail”) at 22,943 ft, and the great peaks of Annapurna South (23,684 ft.) and Annapurna I (26,545 ft.), the 10th highest mountain in the world.

    Click here to view the full panorama.

    Snapshot Sunday: Watering Time in the Garden of Dreams

    [ptcPhoto filename=”Flowers640.jpg” title=”Garden Flowers” caption=”Bright Flowers in Kathmandu – Nepal” position=”center”]

    Inspired by the Edwardian style of some European gardens, the Garden of Dreams showcases pavilions, fountains, and verandahs along winding perimeter paths. Each of the garden’s pavilions is dedicated to one of Nepal’s six distinct seasons. It provides a charming respite from the busy streets of Kathmandu.

    Click here to view a larger, detailed image.