Upon landing in Kathmandu, the first thing I needed to do was buy the visa on arrival. I thought it was so funny that they did not accept their own money, Nepalese Rupee, for the visa. They only accepted strong currencies like USD, GBP, Euro, AUSD, NZD, Yen, etc., certainly not Thai Baht though! Anyway, I had to get USD, which I found silly.
The next thing I noticed was how diverse the tourist population was. It really puts in perspective what a small amount of tourists are American; I came across only a small handful of Americans on this trip. I think I was under the false notion that Americans are somewhat ahead at everything but tourism is certainly not dominated by Americans. I also found it interesting that although Nepal lies between China and India, the Nepali people look mostly Indian, not Chinese. I assume this is because the Himalayas divide Nepal and China…
Anyway, I booked an all inclusive trek, meaning that they picked me up from the airport, booked me a room and gave me a tour in Kathmandu, bought my ticket to the trekking area, and got my national park permits. There was a man holding a sign with my name on it when I walked out of the airport.
Once we were in the tourist area of Kathmandu, called Thamel, we were surrounded by chaos. The roads in this area all seem like alleys but are indeed roads. There are bicycle vendors selling fruit and bicycles towing carriages as taxis, both obnoxiously in the way of cars and motorcycles. Here they don’t have small motorbikes like in Thailand, they have only big nice motorcycles. This seems weird since the roads are smaller and the people are poorer… Anyway, they also seem to have replaced normal sounding car horns with awful squealing and screeching ones, which they have no problem laying on for at least 5 seconds straight. The horns don’t motivate any one to move quicker and they echo off the building walls of the narrow streets. The buildings are about 3-4 stories high, mostly brick, and the roads are stinky and a bit muddy. Some of the stench comes from old offerings of food and flowers that never seem to be cleared from doorsteps. The shop owners all stand out front of the shops, constantly asking “where you come from?” Even though I didn’t necessarily like everything that was going on around me or want to answer stranger’s questions, I felt like I was immersed in the culture of Kathmandu, maybe not what it is overall or what is was historically but what it is about today for tourists. Experiences like that are never regrettable. Traveling alone also allows for your surroundings to really sink in.
I was given a tour of Kathmandu by a very happy and knowledgeable tour guide. We visited 3 of the most important sites in Kathmandu, the second 2 of which are UNESCO Heritage sites, and all of which had plenty of mythical stories built into their history (my guide knew them all). The stories really made me wonder, first how such abstract stories were accepted by the general public, then about how that would never fly at home since its not scientific, then about how even if we liked mythological stories we would be too stubborn to agree on just one, and then I wondered if the Hindus truly believed it all or if they simply took pleasure in its content? I didn’t want to risk offending anyone by asking…
The first site we visited was Swayambhunath, commonly known as the Monkey Temple because it is thought to have holy monkeys. It is a religious shrine atop a hillside overlooking the Kathmandu Valley. For Buddhists, especially Tibetan Buddhists, it is considered the second most sacred among Buddhist pilgrimage sites. The eyes of Buddha stare out in all directions across the sweeping landscapes of Kathmandu. It also contains a ton of monkeys.The second site, called Boudhanath, is the most sacred Buddhist site. Here you will see one of the biggest stupas in the world. You cannot go inside the dome shaped structure, but monks and other visitors walk its perimeter, spinning all of the prayer wheels engraved with the Tibetan Buddhist mantra (apparently too difficult to accurately translate).
along the riverbank, right through the middle of the temple. I saw the fires burning but when my guide told me that they were burning bodies I was a bit stunned. I guess I have never been so close to death before.. and certainly not in that form. After watching some singing and chanting taking place for all to see, I witnessed a family cremating their deceased from about the beginning of the ritual. My guide was explaining it to me—the stuff burning in his mouth to rid the body of something or protect it from something, the first born being the first to circle the body chanting, etc. I could clearly see the person engulfed in the flames and I could not look away; it was so surreal.
The next day I took a short flight in a tiny plane to a town called Pokhara which is closest to the base of the Annapurna Himalaya region. I met my guide here and began my trek after a crazy car ride a bit higher into the mountains. The trekking on the first day was just average uphill trails. Bigger groups of trekkers had their guides or had porters carrying all their stuff except a small daypack. The porters often strapped about 3 backpackers packs together and took off walking twice as fast as their group and guides, and these are little guys! Amazing! I chose to carry my stuff because I just plain felt bad making my guide carry it. He had a small backpack of his own and he just seemed so skinny!
There were lots of other trekkers in the area, not that the trails were packed or anything, but enough to keep the approximate 10 rooms at each lodge full each night. The other tourists were from all over, conversing in many languages. I kept mostly to myself, reading and whatnot since I didn’t seem to have anything in common with the people around me. I did meet some interesting Dutch and Swedish tourists as well as a couple of Korean nuns on a Buddhist pilgrimage. One of them taught me how to use more functions on my camera! Most of the time, I had no problem just sitting facing the snowy peaks on the immediate horizon, reading a book. Although I didn’t actually climb to altitudes high enough for snow, I got pretty cold in the shade and at night since I have been living on a tropical island for over a year!
The next couple days involved a LOT of steep stone steps. We gained much more altitude but I was pleasantly surprised to find that I wanted no breaks and was doing great! We also passed through many villages offering “teahouse” lodging (the kind of accommodation we used at night), as well as meadows, rice fields, waterfalls, bridges, creeks, all nestles into the beautiful mountainsides. This is all the Annapurna region but the actual snow-covered Annapurna Himalaya peaks were visible all around us. After spending the night at our highest altitude, we woke up before sunrise (along with way too many other tourists) to hike about 45 minutes up even more to the top of Poon Hill to see the sunrise over the beautiful landscape. There were spectacular views but every trekking group’s individually tailored trek involved this sunrise hike too!
Before I left on my trip, I met a lady at my yoga studio in Phuket who happen to be from California and taught at a tiny Bikram studio in Kathmandu. I checked their schedule and knew classes were infrequent. After my trek I was supposed to stay in Pokhara for a night but insisted I get back to Kathmandu for that yoga class. We finished our trek at about 11am on the last day but, as the only tourist bus back to Kathmandu left early in the morning, my guide offered to take me back on a local bus. I knew this would be an adventure to say the least but willingly agreed.
What was a 35 minute flight in the other direction became a 10 hour drive in which we were lucky to have seats. Families were getting on and off from all sorts of random villages along the way, jamming into the aisle with their infants and toddlers, trying to talk over the constant screeching honking of the bus. The paved part of the road seemed to be only one lane wide so the bus constantly rode slanted, passing the oncoming traffic, one side of the bus on the pothole-filled road and the other in the buffer of dirt. Young men were climbing onto the roof of the bus to smoke or just ride by holding onto the doorway and walking up my window. I had to open my window when they climbed down so they had somewhere to put their foot. And of course we got the required-of-every-journey flat tire! As they piled off the bus, one spunky woman looked at me and said in English, “Let’s go!” as in c’mon lets go walk around, this won’t be short! I enjoyed the people watching and perhaps, since I was the only foreigner on the bus, they enjoyed watching me too. Actually, I was watching Family Guy on my ipod at one point and suddenly realized there were two little boys hovering right above me from the seat behind-- the cartoon playing on a tiny handheld screen clearly caught their eye!
The next morning I woke up early and went to that yoga class. I was the only non-Nepalese person among the class of about 10, although it was taught in English. I spoke to the instructor after and told him how I heard of the studio (the studio is too small to be listed on the Bikram website!). It turned out, though he is Nepalese, he lived in California for 8 years, pretty much walking distance from my parents’ house in Pinole! How awesome.
I spent the rest of the day enjoying the shopping of the tourist area. I bought pashmina scarves from a man with another thumb growing out of both of his thumbs, corrected storeowners when they punched the wrong currency conversion into their calculators, ate Dahl Baht (traditional food), and just wandered. I enjoyed watching the Nepalese people eat rice and curry with their hands (the norm) and wondered if they ever got the smell of curry off of their fingers.
When I think of Nepal, I will think how it will always be full of unique people with interesting stories, all year round, even when I have gone back to the states and adjusted to a new routine, Kathmandu and the Himalayas will continue to maintain a little Mecca for imaginative and selfless people.