A month in Nepal (IV)
This won’t do. I have been putting this post off for one and a half month now, with the result that other ideas are getting stuck in the pipeline and deprecate before they even see the light of day.
Here comes the fourth and final part in my mini-series about our holiday in Nepal earlier this year.
After having visited Kathmandu, witnessed my cousin’s wedding there, and watched rhinos and crocodiles and bathed with some of the local elephants in the National Park of Chitwan, we went on to Pokhara, which is the second largest city of Nepal.
Unlike the tourist center of Kathmandu (Thamel), the so-called Lakeside district of Pokhara is quite a pleasant place to stay. It has a relaxed Buddhist / hippie ambiance to it: Walking down the central streets you are met with the sounds of meditation music, and shop owners will let you have a look at the contents of their shelves without pestering you with constant attempts to strike a bargain. The streets are very clean, and there is little motorized traffic.
This is all the more impressive, as you only have to take a few steps outside of the Lakeside district to find conditions very similar to those in Kathmandu.
We stayed in Pokhara for a few days, basically eating, resting and buying various necessary items for our trek. Then we shouldered our backpacks and – from the nearby village of Phedi – took off on an 8 day trek in the Himalayas.
Our route (shown in the map) was as follows:
Day one: Phedi – Dhampus – Pothana – Pitam Deurali
(Pokhara is outside the map, to the south-east.)
We went by taxi from Pokhara to Phedi, and at the other end of the route from Nayapul to Pokhara. The rest of the way we traveled by foot – a natural choice, really, seeing as the only parts of the route covered by road are the short stretches between Phedi and Damphus and between Birethanti and Nayapul.
Aske is a pretty smart guy. He went right ahead and bought himself a nice walking stick from an old woman in Phedi. I laughed at him. It made him look a bit like a cross between Gandalf and a hobbit, and it seemed superfluous at best. Why would anyone want to carry the extra weight of a heavy, wooden stick into the mountains?
Luckily, after having apologized to Aske and restored my karma, I found another old woman who just happened to have a few walking sticks available for sale, as we had lunch at her place outside the village of Tolka on the second day.
The moral: Old (and young) women (and men) in Nepal are always looking to sell you something. Do get a walking stick. And don’t laugh at Aske when it comes to equipment.
The term ‘Nepali flat’ allegedly translates into ‘a little bit up – a little bit down’. That is an euphemism. Take it from me: The Stairway to Heaven is very real. Except that it would be more correct to speak of it in plural. The Himalayas are full of them. Go to the Annapurna, and you will see.
For one thing, it is very hard to describe the beauty of the Himalayas. Maybe that is why I have been putting this off for so long. I wanted to get it right, but as hard as I try, I can’t seem to find the right words.
Have a look at the pictures instead. And then go to see for yourself.
I am serious. You should go. Just do it.
The route we had chosen is one of the most popular treks in the Annapurna region. In practice, what this means is that the walking distance between one settlement and the next never amounts to more than a few hours.
Consequently, though travel agents will tell you that you need at least a porter and a guide, it is quite possible to do as we did: Pack a few necessities, leave the sleeping bag at home and figure out the rest along the way.
The locals are very friendly, and if you bring a good map it is actually quite hard to get seriously lost in these parts of the country. As an added bonus, your money is passed on directly to the people building the roads and running the lodges – not to some travel agent in Pokhara or Kathmandu.
Now. If, like me, you have only ever stayed in western style hotels, hostels or camp sites, then you should know that this is not like that. At all.
The lodges are usually run by women. Old women and young women. You rarely see any men, except for the porters and guides who accompany other travelers. Apparently they are all off working elsewhere during most of the year.
The lodges usually offer rooms with one or two beds and sometimes a small table. If you are lucky, there is a lamp. If you are very lucky, there is electricity for the lamp. Appreciate it! It gets dark in the night.
The rooms are not heated. To get some warmth into your body before going to bed, spend the evening near the large wood stove usually found in the common room where meals are served. And ask the lodge owner for a blanket, if you didn’t bring a sleeping bag. It may smell a bit, but it will keep you warm during the night. Appreciate it!
Generally try to avoid the room right next to the toilet, which is a hole in the ground shared by everyone. (Google ‘squat toilet’ if you really want pictures). This is not a good place to have a nervous stomach.
Every once in a while, you may come across a lodge that advertises a ‘western style toilet’. Some Nepalese guy carried it all the way up the mountain on his back. Appreciate it! And don’t be surprised, if the cistern leaks a bit, or if you have to fill it manually with water. It’s all part of the experience.
The big hole in your window? No worries. The owner knows and will not hold it against you, as long as you pay the agreed-upon fee.
The humongous spider on the wall? Appreciate it! It may be the reason why you don’t see any mice. Or not. At any rate, it is probably more scared than you are. Do try to keep the leeches out, though. They are not good company.
A room for the night in one of these lodges will cost you only a few dollars. In return, you are expected to take your meals in the same place. You might as well, anyway, as the menu is the same everywhere. The prices vary a bit, but on average we paid a grand total of less than 20 dollars for dinner, accommodation and breakfast for the two of us.
Stick with local dishes, if you care about the environment. And make sure to pick something that has been cooked. Usually, dal bhat is a good choice, but spicy momos, or a rösti with cheese and/or a fried egg on top, are not bad either. Hot tea with mint leaves or freshly pressed lemon and sugar is exceedingly tasty after a long day of walking. For breakfast I would recommend porridge with some apple or banana on top. Have a glass of warm milk too.
Generally, the lodge owners appreciate it, if you order your dinner well in advance. Similarly, if you stop somewhere for lunch, you should be prepared to wait for your meal. Even if you are the only guests.
At first, this took us a bit by surprise, but then we understood: Money is scarce, food is scarce, almost every important resource is scarce in Nepal, and especially in the mountains.
If you order a rösti with a fried egg, then – and not a second sooner – someone will go fetch two potatoes, an egg and some wood for the stove. Once there is a fire, the water must be brought to a boil, the potatoes must be cooked, then cooled, grated and roasted. Every step takes time.
Preparing a simple meal for two in this way may well take an hour or more. Especially if the two clueless tourists decided to ask for three different things like, say, a plate of momos, a rösti with cheese, and an omelet. Oh, and a cup of tea with lemon and one with mint leaves, please…
For this reason, it is advisable to order your dinner – and breakfast – upon arrival. Just let the lodge owner know when you would like to eat. Don’t expect to be able to eat at 21 o’clock or later, though. By then it is night. At night, you sleep.
One of the highlights of our trek was definitely the evening we spent in a small, rather primitive lodge just outside Chuile. We had been fighting our way up the mountain, when it started to pour down, and so it didn’t take us many seconds to decide that reaching Chuile itself on that particular evening wasn’t all that important.
The lodge owner was a young woman, who seemed to be all alone out there, in the middle of nowhere. We were the only guests. She kindly offered to heat some water for us, and so we had our first ‘shower’: Standing in an empty shed with wooden walls, concrete floor and no light except for our own torch we took turns scooping water over one another. This was on day four, and it felt absolutely amazing.
And then, when it was time to eat, we were invited by our host to eat it in her kitchen. A couple of elderly women showed up from out of nowhere to keep her company, and so we sat in there in the kitchen, eating dal bhat and drinking warm milk, watching the fire in the stove, and listening to the chatter of three Nepalese women. It was a very special experience.
There is so much more to tell about our trek. So many little anecdotes and funny encounters. But really, I need to finish off this article soon. It is growing too long, and my life is missing me.
I could tell you about the cows we met – or possibly they were some kind of yakows? – in the streets of villages, out in the middle of the forest, or when turning a particularly sharp corner of a narrow path on the steepest slope of a mountain… At first I was a bit afraid of them, but they turn out to be rather shy and non-aggressive animals. Take a few steps toward them, and they will do their best to move out of your way.
Or the flocks of goats that occasionally forced us to seek refuge in higher places with no choice but to wait patiently for the flood to pass. Somewhere in the middle of the flock you would spot the herdsman, running back and forth and shouting incomprehensible orders and somehow getting his will.
Then there were the suspension bridges, connecting neighboring mountains and allowing tourists and locals alike to pass over roaring rivers. Solid feats of engineering in a world that seemed to be otherwise left completely in the hands of nature.
Of course, someone had usually remembered to adorn the bridge with some Buddhist prayer flags as well. It never hurts to be sure, you know.
I thought my rucksack was heavy at times. I had packed lightly, though. Imagine carrying mattresses or toilet cisterns over the mountains in the same way… And not just once or twice, but again and again, for much of the year, every year, most of your life?
Most importantly, there were the thundering rivers and the shallow streams, the fairy tale forests, the mountains, the views, the blue sky, the yellow cornfields, the predictable showers of rain between 16 and 18 o’clock in the afternoon, the friendly shouts of ‘namaste‘ from passing locals and tourists alike…
There is more, much more, but now I really need to get on with other things.
Do ask me, though, if you are wondering about something. Or just leave a comment to let me know you were here. I love comments.
And – if you are not yet green with envy – feel free to have a look in my gallery, which contains select photos from our entire trip to Nepal.
That’s it, folks.
For this time, at least.