Nepal: A Visit To The Himalayas, But Not To Scale The Everest

 
Now Nepal would rarely make it to an Indian’s “Must Visit” list unless you’re setting off for an Everest base camp trek, but with a Rs.4000 flight ticket it’s hard to say no to visiting another country, even if it’s more like an extension of your own. 

Though glad I am for that fortuitous day when a casual scroll through Spicejet’s international destination flight deals, I landed this one and set off an impromptu one week budget trip to Nepal.

A bit about Nepal’s background: Bordered by India, China and Tibet, Nepal is small landlocked country, and home to 8 out of 10 world’s highest mountains, including the highest Mount Everest (8848mts) and a monarchy till very recently. To know more about Nepal, a wiki article would be more helpful, this is a snippet of how I experienced this humble country.

Landing at the quaintest airport
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To set off on what probably was the first unplanned trip of mine, I landed at the Tribhuvan International Airport of Kathmandu – Nepal’s capital city. On a cool July evening, my little plane landed on on an airstrip surrounded by the hills in the distant (what any first time traveler to Nepal would naively assume and hope for to be THE Everest! :P)

The temperature was just right, the sky was awash with a promise of rain,  and the airport, a most quaint building – all red stone and wooden panels. It could easily pass for a boarding school in the hills, but a rather amateurish looking “Welcome to Nepal” against the photo of the Everest Range signboard would set the record straight.

Touristing it in Thamel, the backpacker district
 
Taking a barely-negotiated (not recommended) cab from the airport I dived straight into the tourist downtown ‘Thamel’. After ending up at the wrong ‘Potala Hotel’, a short walk through the bustling streets of Thamel, full of touristy souvenirs that make you feel right at home, I victoriously made it to the right Potala and met my friend Parth who’d be my co-traveler for the remaining days in the trip.
backpacker district nepal
We took a leisurely stroll through the backpacker area Thamel, which was thronging with tourists – and I mean tourists as I learnt later that the season was ripe for the Chinese neighbours for their annual vacation and Nepal was an easy favourite. Rock pubs, Italian cafes, “Dance bars”, tattoo parlours, pashmina shawls – You name it, you got it in Thamel! Though, our eyes were peeled out for some Momos – A tibetan delicacy and anticipatedly a Nepalese staple too given the close proximity of the region- however I was in bad luck as no vegetarian momos were to be found. I satiated my cravings instead by picking up a beautiful hippie backpack at a steal and tucking in some hot poori-sabzi (an Indian bread and veggies)
It feels good to be in a country where your currency makes you feel rich, for a change! (Hello $$$ I’m talking to you!)
Below are some photos from the streets of Thamel.
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And if you thought climbing the Himalayas was the only way to get ‘high’ in Nepal, there are a few touts all around the streets trying to peddle you know stuff, happy stuff.

We however decided to celebrate the first night in Nepal with a local beer – aptly titled ‘Everest’ and kicked back in the balcony of Hotel Potala, rock ballads blaring out from a nearby pub.
 
Swayambhunath temple, Patan and a taste of history and heritage
 
The next day was earmarked for all the sightseeing we could cram as it was our only day in Kathmandu as we were told and also discovered that Kathmandu was strictly a city for the locals, and held little interest or value for travelers. 
 
We started the day by visiting the Swayambhunath, spending a lot of time at the nice (complimentary) breakfast at the hotel in the balcony, overlooking the narrow street in Thamel and getting some photo ops from my new camera. Keen on soaking the local culture from the word go (Read: save), we got into a ‘microbus’- a van that can accommodate upto 20 people – a popular commute option in Nepal and landed at the Swayambhunath temple perched atop a hill from which stunning views of the whole city of Kathmandu await.
Now before we began the hike for the temple itself, gigantic vibrant statues of the Buddha and two other gods sit at the base of the Swayambhuantah temple. The statues, all imposing and impressive in their grandeur, with the heads touching the sky, and the intricate carving and a rather interesting choice of colours on the platform makes for a great visual delight.
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We met (and later made friends with) an Indonesian female traveler at the temple who piqued our interest first because of the camera extender she had been handily using to take her own photos! That selfies are so real never has hit home so hard. (And that was my first tryst with selfie-sticks!)
So along with her & a couple of her friends, we headed off to the Swayambhunath or the Monkey temple, rolling the prayer wheels along the side of the temple, and a 15 minute uphill hike later, were at the temple for which another flight of steps awaited through a hill and a beautiful canopy of colourful Buddhist Prayer flags. (Omniscient In Nepal) We were breathless and sweating as we stumbled up the last steep steps and eyed the vast, round, white dome of the stupa, at the top of which were two giant Buddha eyes wisely looking out over the peaceful valley.  These eyes have come to symbolise Nepal itself and can be found emblazoned on most Nepalese souvenirs.
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The steps back to the start of the temple are interspersed with curio shops selling some exquisite tibetan handicrafts, thupkas, pashminas and lot of art by the local artists. Recommend buying after due negotiations to support the artists.

Swayambhunath temple, Kathmandu, nepal

Next on the list was the Darbar Square- highly recommended. Though we ended up at a different Darbar Square from the one we’d intended to, this one in the Patan precinct of Nepal was a most welcome deviation. 

Darbar Square, Kathamandu, Nepal

That Nepal was a kingdom for years is never more apparent than in the Patan district.
Rows of unpainted stonebrick houses with intricate wood work balconies and elaborate arches dot the district. The darbar square itself is spectacular with a row of palaces, temples, buddhist sculptures all in a close micro kingdom of sorts.
After admiring the views of Darbar Square and feeling a part of the Nepalese history and heritage, we set off for the way back to catch a bus to Pokhara- but not before devouring some tea and samosas, a favourite back home, in a shop where the owner didn’t speak our language but was the most warm to us.
Patan, nepal
To our surprise, our new friends from earlier in the day were already in the microbus that’d take us to Pokhara that night!
It was dusk by now, and our bus meandered through rather dicy turns, along raging rivers, against the rains, and at around midnight we reached Pokhara.
Checked into a hotel by the lakeside- FYI- every hotel in Pokhara is lakeside as the entire town is housed along the Fewa lake.
Pokhara, backpacker’s paradise and a trekker’s base camp
The next morning,  we walked endlessly along lake Feva and realised too soon that apart from that one stretch along the lake, flanked by cafes, trekking gear shops and other curios shops on the other side, there’s not much to do in Pokhara. Do however enjoy the view of the lake on a clear sky, sitting at the viewpoint, watching the very many colourful painted boats moored on one end of the lake, while squinting your eyes up at the distant skies- dotted with colourful kites, paragliders on their rather daredevil paragliding jaunts, while the hills reflect dedicatedly in the placid lake.
We kicked back with some Momos which we noticed Nepali signboards write as “M:M”, rather amused.
Phew lake, Nepal

In the noon, we decided to see the famous ‘World Peace Pagoda’ for which we crossed the lake on a boat, and then hiked up around 1000 ft through a well laid out path in the hill.

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The view from atop the world peace pagoda makes the 1 hour hike so worth it.
As you reach up, the angelic white pagoda ( a Buddhist temple) looms large in front and as you step closer watching the temple through a haze of pink daisies at its base makes for a most surreal experience. Along on the circumference of the temple, we stood at the whitewashed fence and admired the views of the mighty himalayan range on all sides, and my photos as I experienced a photographic orgasm! 

There’s an “elite cafe” at the base of the Pagoda, if you’re elite enough to shell out 400NPR for a beer against that breathtaking view.

We took a cab back from the other side of the hill and spent the night in Pokhara in one of its numerous cafes catering to all foreign tastes, both in food and music- over some Gorkha beer and Hummus and Pita.
Taming the river and our fears
That settled, we got on a bus that’d take us to the rafting spot after a 3 hour bus ride.
We got our safety instructions from a most-amiable looking Nepali man in lycra shorts in a world map print and took our positions in the 8-seater raft. Parth and I were the only Indians on the boat and assuringly there were a couple of pro-rafters in the front.
10 minutes into our ride, I suddenly find myself struggling to breathe and holding on to dear life (the raft). Yes, our raft toppled over!
What I’d initially- to my horror- thought to be a freak accident, turns out to be a normal occurrence on most rafts, and long as one has their floating jackets (and wits) on, it’s rather fun to be drifted ahead with the current of a raging river while the guides expertly turn the raft back over.
Here’s the thing with rafting. If you’ve fallen into the river once, and survived, there’s barely any fear left. From then on, it was a smooth sail through the river. We would manically start to row forwards when the guides yelled..FORWARD!, happily stop when it was STOP and clumsily row back when they, rarely, yelled BACK!
I overuse the word, but I feel there hasn’t been an experience as surreal as sitting on a raft, in an overflowing river, as far as your eyes can see-front back and back- while flanked by a mountain range on both sides and one at the far front. I mean could you be any closer to nature?
I doubt it. And so we floated, rowed, tumbled through a lazy flow one minute and strong whirlpools and rapid currents the next, through a most exhilarating 2 hour ride in the Trishuli river and kicked back with some local Nepali lunch- all tired, but feeling accomplished over the freshly acquired wisdom that rivers are not something to worship or fear but to befriend and tame.
I got back to Pokhara that evening, while Parth had to go back to Kathmandu.
I checked into another low-budget guesthouse and spent the evening by myself walking along the now familiar lakeside stretch multiple times over, picking up some souvenirs from one of the many shops.

An early morning ride to the hills…and Oh you elusive Himalayas!

I woke up at 4am today, strangely all charged up, to ride pillion with Mr Bharat, through a 30 minute hilly path up to Sarangkot, famed for providing glorious views of sunrise over the snow-capped Annapurna mountain range (7000~mts )

Got here around 5am, with barely any light, where almost a hundred travelers like me, mostly Asians, were swarming the place, ready with their camera gear to click the first hint of the sun illuminating the peaks of the mountain range. The sun showed up minutes later alright, the landscape turned from dark to light and lighter within minutes; however no sighting of the range thanks to a thicket of clouds obscuring the view. Never was the phrase “clouded vision” more accurate and literal than now. After a lot of disappointed “ohhs” and a dejected contour on most of the faces, finally the gods were a bit kind and the clouds parted briefly to reveal the Mucchapuchare ( fishtail) peak and the joy amongst the crowd was boundless! As expected, there was a frenzied spurt of camera clicks and excited tones all around! Although this wasn’t what we had sacrificed most of the night’s sleep & paid a decently high taxi fare for, it was some relief for the waiting eyes.

Muchapuchare peak, Himalayas Nepal

It didn’t last long though and soon the clouds resumed their places, and people started to make their way down from the viewpoint. I, however, stayed back to take in the view, minus the crowds and the chatter and have a few peaceful moment to myself. Soon I was alone here, at a height of 1500 metres, feeling literally on top of the world and the fresh mountain wind on my face. I sat here reading my book and sipping a tea for about a couple of hours.

Tea in himalayas

 

Invigorated by the fresh mountain air, I made to walk all the way back to the lakeside ( it’d take 2-3 hours) but this guy in a helmet, on a fancy bike agreed to ( yes, I hailed him) give me a ride. He as I enquired through the 15 minute ride, was a Nepali and worked as a paragliding guide and enjoyed it.
No-show of the Annapurna notwithstanding, I think the morning was worth it.
Spent the remaining day at the lovely Cafe Amsterdam, (Highly recommended) chilling with my books, wifi on my phone and a privileged balcony overlooking the Phewa lake.

 

Cafe Amsterdam, Nepal

At around 7, I got into a bus to Sunauli, the town that straddles both Nepal and India, and houses the Border crossing into India.

Crossing a border on foot, check! 
After what was a rather treacherous 8 hour drive from Pokhara through the hills, I reached the comforting plains of Sunauli around 5 in the am. Crossed the border (Literally walked under an arch and into another) to cross over to the motherland- Just like that.
A 2 hour bus ride later, I was at the Indian city of Gorakhpur, from where I would take a train to Delhi where my flight back to Bangalore was from. Phew!
I will reserve my judgement on Gorakhpur on this blog, should I explode into a nostalgic fury- and none of it is a good memory.
And thus ended my vacation to Nepal- the land of the warm people, and sometimes warmer climates, hilly bliss, adrenaline rush and a mental calm, all amidst the shadows of the Himalayas.
Traditional Nepali Man Ikat cap
Some tips and takeways:
  • Visit Nepal from Oct-Feb to be the middle of the tourist season- Bustling cafes, trekkers gearing up for their BIG expeditions to the Annapurna circuit, the works. Other seasons if you’re rather avoiding the world.
  • Carry cash. Nepalese ATMs charge a fees of 400NPR every transaction. Bummer.
  • Buy sports and trekking gear in Nepal. To be had at a steal.
  • Do try the land route to enter Nepal from India or vice versa at least once. It’s not as long or tedious as they make it sound and it’s kind of a kick to cross a border on foot!
  • If you’re not climbing the Everest, or going on a major trek, and just want to chill, 4-5 days in Nepal are just enough. A week is 2 days too many unless you also want to check out Chitwan national park, do bungee at the Last resort and visit Lumbini – the birthland of Buddha.
  • When people quote the price, always cross check if it’s NPR or INR. There’s scope for confusion and deceit here.
  • If you wish to do the white river rafting trip, do a Kathmandu- River Rafting Spot in the middle- Pokhara route or back. This would save time in going back halfway on the same route.
  • Do carry comfortable shoes. There’s going to be some walking and hiking.
  • The Nepalese are some of the most simple, and nicest people around. Be nice. Do not bargain like your life depends on it. Try to add value in your interactions with them. But then this tip will go a long way in most any places.
  • Don’t expect the world out of Nepal. It’s a simple, unassuming country, perfect for some time off from the hustle bustle of the cities,  but not a delight-a-minute experience unless of course you’re climbing the mighty Everest.

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