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Nepal’s Poon Hill Trek, Day 3: Ghorepani to Tadapani

Nepal’s Poon Hill Trek, Day 3: Ghorepani to Tadapani

When I first started researching the Poon Hill Trek, I read countless accounts of exhausted hikers waking up at 5am and climbing the “hill” (translation = a 10,000-foot peak that would be classified as a “very tall mountain” anywhere else) in the freezing cold to watch the sun rise.

“Dumb morning people,” I muttered to myself, knowing that I’d never be seen among those idiots who awoke that early and climbed an icy mountainside…in the dark.

I mean, what’s wrong with waiting until later in the day? It’s not like Poon Hill (or the Himalayas) are going anywhere. It’s not as if they won’t be there at midday or late afternoon.

Well, that’s kinda true…but also kinda not. You see, at this altitude, the mountains basically create their own weather. All those glorious photos you see of the bare snowcapped Himalayan peaks? I can almost guarantee that those pictures were taken before the hour of 9am. Because once that magical hour hits, the clouds start to form, obscuring the peaks for the remainder of the day.

Akash explained all of this to us on the trek up, so I already knew what I was going to be doing at 5am today.

I was going to wake up – freezing – and hike up an icy mountainside in the dark – freezing – just like all of those idiots I’d read about (and pitied, because I knew they were freezing).

And indeed, at the gloriously dark hour of 5am, Jeremy, Akash, and I set off from our guesthouse, armed with the flashlights from our trusty cell phones, and joined dozens of other bleary-eyed tourists in trudging up, up, up Poon Hill. From the village of Ghorepani (9,429 feet/2,874m), we had to climb an additional 1,000 feet to the hilltop – the highest point in the trek – which maxes out at 10,475 feet (3,210m).

I was already struggling with the altitude the day before. (Did I mention this is classified as the “easiest trek” in Nepal?) I really, really didn’t stand a chance of having an easy hike.

But I know now why mountain climbers feel so incredibly victorious when they reach the summit. For over an hour, I gasped, wheezed, sweated profusely, shivered, stopped a million times to catch my breath, nearly slipped on icy steps, wanted to scream, shout, burst into tears, and quit, almost turned around and gave up on several occasions…

And then – and THEN – two stone pillars and string of colorful prayer flags are there to greet you, assuring you that you did it. You made it to the top. With the last vestige of my energy and determination, I climbed the final step and set foot on the top of Poon Hill, just as the sky was growing pink and the perfectly clear, cloudless peaks became visible…and I suddenly understood.

I was standing on top of the world.

We limped over to the conveniently placed coffee shack (the only sign of civilization for miles around) and ordered three life-saving cups of masala tea, warming our frozen hands on the tin mugs while we awaited the sunrise. I met the tired eyes of other trekkers, and unspoken communication passed seamlessly between us: “I know…This totally sucks…I hate life right now too…It’s going to be alright…It’ll all be worth it…Right?”

A few minutes later we got our answer, in the form of a gloriously golden sunrise that lit up the peaks like a bonfire in the sky. Directly in front of us were some of the tallest mountains on the face of the earth: Dhaulagiri (26,817 feet/8177m), Annapurna (26,545 feet/8091m), Annapurna South (23,920 feet/7219m), and Machapuchare or “Fish Tail Peak” (22,956 feet/6991m).

I’m a writer, but I don’t have words to describe what it was like to stand there, on the rooftop of the world, and behold such a sight. Whatever it is that passes through your mind and heart at that moment – be it spiritual, religious, a sense of inner peace or personal enlightenment – there’s no way you can be unaffected by what you’re seeing.

And all of the sweat, tears, and effort it took to get to this point all magically melt away, like it never even happened.

Of course, you’re reminded of it pretty quickly when you turn around and start heading down the hill. The trek down was a breeze compared to the trek up, but our day was just getting started. Akash told us that we had the longest and highest day ahead of us – seven hours, at best, along the ridgeline…and we’d be hitting snow and ice along the way.

Since that was the case, we thought it best to enjoy a little levity (and more breathtaking views) on the way down.

So! After downing more amazing potato roasties for breakfast, we set off in the opposite direction from Poon Hill, climbing for a brutal hour to the top of Gurung Hill. The views were spectacular, although the clouds were rolling in to obscure the peaks (aren’t we glad we got up at 5am to see them?).

As we pressed onward, the sky grew grayer and the temperature dropped, promising fresh snow in the future.

Sure enough, right as we entered the village of Deurali, the skies opened up and big white snowflakes began swirling through the air. This just happened to coincide with the most treacherous part of our trek – the steep, narrow winding canyon between Deurali and Banthanti. We were informed, in fact, that the previous day an unfortunate Japanese man had just broken his leg in that canyon and had to be air-evacuated out!

Fortunately for us, we had Akash. And Akash had done his homework – he knew this area would be snowy and icy, so he’d told us ahead of time to buy crampons for the trek. So out come our shiny new crampons – basically metal spikes you affix to your shoes – and down we go.

Without the crampons, it would have been a terrifying and dangerous trek. The stone steps were covered in thick ice, the trail was frozen solid, and the bridges were a scary mix of snow and slush. With our trusty crampons, though, we traversed the frozen landscape without incident – although we definitely had to take it slower than planned.

We were so slow, in fact, that by the time we reached the village of Banthanti we realized that we weren’t going to reach our goal of Ghandruk before nightfall. But we were all safe and uninjured, so that was the most important thing, right?

The great thing about this trek is that you have plenty of options for food and accommodation. When I pictured hiking in the Himalayas, I pictured starkness and miles and miles of empty nothingness. Higher up, I’m sure it’s like that. But “down” where we were (hard to imagine that 10,000 feet is considered “low”), guesthouses and teahouses abound, so you’re not forced to stick to a tight schedule. You can simply go at your own pace – or the pace Mother Nature forces you to go at!

After a solid 9 hours of trekking (including our early climb up Poon Hill) we reached the beautiful village of Tadapani, nestled below the impressive peak of Machapuchare (elevation 22,942 feet/6993m).

(Fun side note: Machapuchare, also called “Fish Tail Peak,” is a sacred mountain in Nepal, said to be home to the Hindu god Shiva. The summit is one of very few places on earth where no man has ever set foot. A British expedition set out to climb the mountain in 1957 and – at the request of the Nepalese King – stopped 150 feet short of the summit.)

Dead to the world, we dragged our weary bodies into the common room (with a wood-burning stove – THANK GOD) and basically collapsed there through a late lunch, early dinner, and painfully slow WiFi. (Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I still can’t believe it’s possible to GET WiFi up there!)

It was an epic day – a day I’ll remember forever – but I won’t lie…it was TOUGH.

And we still have one more day to go…

Nepal’s Poon Hill Trek, Day 2: Ulleri to Ghorepani

Nepal’s Poon Hill Trek, Day 2: Ulleri to Ghorepani

Well, the good news is…we survived the night. I was rather happy to wake up alive this morning.

(Just for the record, though, midnight bathroom runs in a Nepali guesthouse with no heat are NOT fun. That’ll teach me to drink a gigantic pot of tea before bedtime!)

Anyway, considering the brutal nature of our first-day climb, we expected to be basically immobilized this morning. I’m not going to lie and say there was no pain – we both had sore legs and blistered toes – but it was nowhere NEAR as bad as I thought it would be. The relentless cold was actually harder to deal with than the aftereffects of the hike.

And on that note, too, let me say that it’s not actually THAT cold, at least according to the thermostat. I don’t think it’s gotten below freezing (33F/0C) the whole time we’ve been here. Being outside, warmly dressed, walking or climbing, is usually pretty comfortable. The hard part is afterwards, when you’re tired and damp and chilled and just want to get warmed up…and you can’t.

Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive…

That’s what we’re struggling with. Despite our “-20C” sleeping bags and two heavy blankets, I still woke up every hour last night shivering, simply because I’ve never slept in a room this cold. And the common room/dining room is about the same temperature as the outside air, so when you’re just sitting there, weary from the trek…it gets cold really fast.

But anyway, enough about the cold. If you come trekking in the wintertime, consider yourself warned!

Dinner, breakfast, and two beds at the guesthouse in Ulleri came to a total of $23, which seemed more than fair considering we were basically in the middle of nowhere. Since it was dark when we arrived last night, we had no idea of the view that awaited us until we stepped outside and saw the magnificent peak of Annapurna South, soaring to an impressive 23,683 feet (7219m) into a cloudless sky.

Now this was the Nepal I came to see!

Today we had another 3,000 feet (900m) in elevation to climb, topping out at 9,429 feet (2874m) at the top. My Colorado-turned-Thai lungs sure aren’t used to this thin air anymore, because I was huffing harder than a 90-year old with emphysema on the way up. Okay, maybe not quite that bad…but it was a serious workout.

Today’s trek was definitely different scenery than yesterday, starting with a killer view of the mountains from the beautiful little village of Ulleri. Were we in Nepal, or the Swiss Alps? For a moment, we couldn’t be sure.

The next several hours’ trekking was very pleasant, through thick green forests, waterfalls, and the villages of Banthanti and Nagethanti.

View of Machapuchare (Fish Tail Peak)

We also made friends with some furry mountain puppies, fuzzy ponies, and adorable little goats, and we passed more than a few water buffalo and baby yaks along the way!

After a solid five hours of climbing up undoubtedly thousands of additional stone steps (because the Steps of Ulleri weren’t torturous enough), we entered the village of Ghorepani and received a wonderful surprise from Akash – we were done for the day! We thought we were only having lunch here and pressing on, so that was a wonderful surprise for our weary lungs and legs.

Another wonderful surprise? An honest to goodness fireplace in the common room of our Ghorepani guesthouse. It doesn’t give off a ton of heat – I’m still wearing four layers and my snowboarding socks, fireside – but it’s definitely warmer than any other room we’ve sat in this week.

How cold our bedroom will be remains to be seen…but let’s not think about that yet.

Dinner tonight (and lunch, come to think of it) was an incredible Nepali concoction called a potato roasty. What is this delicious delicacy? Diced potato, onion, cheese, and spices, pressed together into a thick, crispy-on-the-outside-gooey-in-the-middle-pancake, pan fried to perfection, and topped with a fried egg. It is the ultimate comfort food, and just perfect for a starving trekker!

Oh, have I mentioned the showers yet? Most of the guesthouses along the trekking route offer a hot shower option (usually 100 rupees or $1), and this may sound like a wonderful option to have, but…

BUT…

Remember that there is no heat in the building (if the shower is even inside the building – in some cases, it’s basically a “shower outhouse”). I decided I was tired of being cold and indulged in a $1 high-altitude hot shower in just such a detached room.

And I thought I was cold BEFORE? Ha!! The water is indeed hot, but it barely trickles out enough to dampen your skin, leaving you soaking wet, shivering, in a steamy makeshift “room” that’s the same temperature as the winter air outside. Then there was that wonderful moment when I’d had enough shivering, turned off the water, and realized I DIDN’T HAVE A TOWEL.

Because…why on earth would I have a towel with me, trekking into the Himalayas? I’m carrying enough crap in my backpack as it is, and I hadn’t planned on taking any showers en route.

So what does my freezing, shivering, soaking wet self do? The only thing I could do – I used two shirts to dry off as well as I could, then hung them up over the fire in hopes they’d dry overnight. And they did (kind of). Then I limped off to my below-freezing room and attempted to sleep, but between the cold and the altitude, I didn’t stand a chance.

Luxury, you guys. I’m telling you, it’s all luxury over here.

But at least our room comes with a pretty sweet view…

Nepal’s Poon Hill Trek, Day 1: Nayapul to Ulleri

Nepal’s Poon Hill Trek, Day 1: Nayapul to Ulleri

Did I just say that yesterday was a long day?

Apparently I forgot that I was waking up this morning to go trekking in THE HIMALAYAS. Apparently I whined about sitting on a bus for eight hours without thinking about the miles and miles and miles of steep mountains – the tallest mountain range in the world, in fact – that I was about to climb!

Silly ol’ me.

What was I thinking, anyway?

Today I did something I’ve never purposely done in my entire life: I got up to watch the sunrise. That may sound ridiculous to some of you, but I’m the first to admit that I’m not a morning person. If it were up to me, mornings wouldn’t exist in the first place. The world would go from pitch black night to – POOF! – instant noontime, with no transition.

However, personal feelings aside, when one is staying in the beautiful lakeside city of Pokhara, Nepal, one gets up at 6:30am to watch the sunrise over the Himalayas. Because, you know…you have to. It would be a crime to sleep in while the morning sun illuminates the world’s most spectacular peaks right outside your hotel window.

Plus – travel tip #37 – your best shot at seeing any peaks in the Himalayas is first thing in the morning, because the mountains create their own weather, and they’re frequently obscured by clouds by midday. That was the case today – before we even went downstairs to have breakfast, the peak of Machapuchare was invisible behind puffy white clouds.

But early this morning? Atmospheric perfection. Not a hint of a cloud anywhere in the sky as the sun crept over the horizon and turned those peaks into a dazzling palette of gold and pink. It was truly a sight worth waking up for, even for me, who wishes mornings didn’t even exist.

The peak of Machapuchare, elevation 22,942 feet (6993m)

It was a good thing we were up early, though, because we still had a lot to do to get ready for our trek. We sorted our belongings into a “take with us” pile and a “leave at the hotel” pile, cutting down to only the barest essentials for our 4-day journey.

(Hotel Orchid, incidentally, is a fantastic place to stay in Pokhara. Aside from wonderful staff, they have a killer location right in town, close to the lake and lots of restaurants, and also a magnificent view of the mountains from the balconies and rooftop. Added bonus: Their rooms comes equipped with A/C and HEAT!)

Anyway, we had to complete the paperwork and wait for our trekking permits to be processed, which didn’t actually happen until 11am. We also had to dash back to the gear rental store for crampons (metal spikes you attach to your shoes) when our guide Akash informed us that the highest sections of the trail would be snowy and icy!

Whose idea was it to go trekking in the dead of winter, anyway? Oh, right. It was mine.

Finalizing our trekking permits

When everything was finally in order, we jumped into a cab and began the trek before the trek – a 1.5-hour drive up out of Pokhara to the tiny town of Nayapul (elevation 3510 feet/1070m). We bid farewell to our cab driver, showed our shiny new trekking permits to the appropriate authorities, and off we went!

Today’s trek: Nayapul (very bottom) northwest to Ulleri
Setting off from Nayapul
Nayapul River
Presenting our trekking permits for approval
Crossing the bridge to Birethanti
Permission granted in Birethanti – the trek officially begins!

Like everything else on this trip, the scenery was nothing like I anticipated. We wound around the valley floor for a couple of hours, past lush green farmland, rice paddies, and a crystal-clear river. The trail was flanked by tall trees and nearly vertical hills that somehow had been terraced to perfection.

Along the way we passed through lots of little villages – Mathathanti, Lamdali, Sudame, Hile, and Tikhedhunga – getting a nice glimpse at the local rural lifestyle. The trek is nowhere near as isolated or desolate as we expected – we passed plenty of other hikers on their way up or down, porters carrying impossibly heavy loads of luggage, an occasional Jeep that definitely had 4-wheel drive, and lots of friendly locals offering us food, tea, or a room in their guesthouse.

Because of our late start, however, we didn’t have much time to lollygag. Akash (kindly but firmly) pushed us uphill for a solid 3 hours before we stopped in Tikhedhunga for a late lunch – fried rice, vegetable momos, and Nepali’s famous dal baht.

Egg and veggie fried rice
Dal baht – lentil stew with rice and curried vegetables
Steamed momos – tasty dumplings filled with vegetables

After lunch was when things REALLY got interesting, as we were trying to reach the town of Ulleri before nightfall. With the sun sinking in the sky and rainclouds rolling in, we began a journey up the infamous “Ulleri Steps” – 3,421 carefully laid stone steps STRAIGHT UP the mountainside.

Yes, some poor soul actually counted. And we poor souls had to CLIMB them.

And climb we did…straight up, past more terraces, over rickety suspension bridges, and more guesthouses and teahouses. Up and up and up we climbed – drenched in sweat, despite the chill in the air – until our lungs were burning and our legs were screaming for mercy. The Ulleri Steps are the equivalent of climbing a 342-story building, if you can imagine such a horrific thing.

It is, quite literally, the Staircase from Hell. It was so hellacious that I couldn’t be bothered to take a single photograph of it.

Just picture a staircase. In hell. And that’s the Ulleri Steps.

With the first drops of rain falling and the sky nearly black, we finally – FINALLY – dragged our panting, wheezing, gasping, pathetically out-of-shape selves into the village of Ulleri (elevation 6400 feet/1960m), which means we gained an impressive 3,000 feet (900m) in elevation in one afternoon.

The victory celebration would come later, though. The first thing we did when we arrived at our little $5/night teahouse was collapse.

The only one of us who wasn’t exhausted (I don’t even think he broke a sweat) was our 21-year old, half mountain-goat guide Akash, who we affectionately nicknamed “The Beast of Annapurna.” Seriously, he’s a beast. He became not only our guide but also our porter once we realized that carrying our own backpacks was going to be impossible.

Our very fit guide, Akash

(Travel tip #29: HIRE A PORTER if you go trekking in Nepal. Don’t attempt to carry your own stuff unless you’re the Incredible Hulk or you’re on a suicide mission. These guys do this trek every day and they’re in better shape than you’ll ever be. So fork over $15/day and hire a porter, help feed their families, and treat them like rockstars, because they deserve it – they’re making your life SO much easier!)

Awesome, hard-working porters

Oh, and in case you’re wondering where we found Akash, look no further than ABC Trek and Tour. These guys seriously took care of us and told us exactly what we needed to be prepared for our trek. If you go to Pokhara, use them…they’ll do everything for you except the actual walking (that part you gotta do yourself)!

I’d love to recount you with exciting tales of village nightlife in the Himalayas, but after a big pot of ginger tea, a few bowls of soup, and one deliciously hot shower, I am signing off. At the ripe ol’ hour of 8pm.

Because guess what I get to do tomorrow? You guessed it…keep on trekking!

Our humble (and cold) accommodation for the night
From Heritage Sites to Hill Stations: Bhaktapur, Nepal

From Heritage Sites to Hill Stations: Bhaktapur, Nepal

The employees at the Madhuban Guesthouse where we’ve been staying in Kathmandu have been awesome.

More than awesome, in fact. With only one day left in Kathmandu Valley and two different areas we wanted to hit, we asked about the possibility of hiring a car and driver for the day. (I would not attempt to navigate the psychotic traffic in a car or on a moped if my life depended on it!) The guesthouse kindly arranged a driver for the day to shuttle us 15 miles west to the ancient city of Bhaktapur, then an additional 20 miles up into the foothills to the little hill station town of Nagarkot.

Cost for car and driver all day = $40. A tour to Bhaktapur alone would’ve cost $40 each, so I think we got ourselves a pretty sweet deal. (Always research your options for stuff like this – sometimes it pays to join a tour group, and sometimes it pays to go private!)

So we climb into said car, and said driver whisks away through the dust (have I mentioned the dust yet?), traffic, and smog to the nearby UNESCO World Heritage site of Bhaktapur.

Literally translated as “Place of Devotees,” Bhaktapur was once the greatest of the three Newar kingdoms in Kathmandu Valley. Until recently, it was the best preserved of the ancient cities, but the 2015 earthquake sadly brought down many of its beautiful buildings.

One building that emerged unscathed in Bhaktapur is the beautiful Nyatapola Temple, a 5-storey pagoda that happens to be the tallest in all of Nepal. It was built in 1701 and has withstood several major earthquakes.

We enjoyed a rooftop lunch at a guesthouse just behind the temple, giving us an amazing view of the city and the surrounding foothills. Even better? It got warm enough to shed our coats!

After lunch we wandered down to Potter’s Square, where Bhaktapur craftsmen have been making pottery the same way for centuries.

On our way back to the car, we stopped for a specialty one can find only in Bhaktapur – Ju Ju Dhau, or “King Curd.” This is a slightly sweet, slightly sour curd made from water buffalo milk, with a texture similar to ricotta cheese. Like all the other dairy products we’ve tried in Nepal, it was delicious!

The 15-mile drive up to hilltop Nagarkot took well over an hour because….well, let’s just say the roads in Nepal aren’t exactly in the best condition. In fact, I read in a travel guide that you are THIRTY TIMES more likely to die in a road accident in Nepal than any other country on earth!

Not only are the roads narrow, winding, and without guardrails, but they’re alternately paved, dirt, mud, broken rocks, gigantic potholes, or any other type of material. Add in maniacal drivers, motorbikes, pedestrians, rogue cows and other livestock, and you’ve got a pretty decent recipe for disaster.

Not that any of that should deter you from visiting. Far from it! It’s all just part of the experience.

Chaos aside, it was a spectacular view on the drive up out of the valley. If you’re anything like me, you pictured Nepal as a land of barren rocks, open spaces, and mountain peaks, because that’s pretty much the only photos you ever see. And to be sure, the mountains look exactly like that.

But the valleys? They are LUSH. Green, tropical, and vibrant, full of terraced rice fields, banana trees, bamboo forests, even the occasional palm tree!

As we climbed higher we passed through an enormous pine forest that obscured the view for a while…and then we emerged at the top of the hill.

Nagarkot itself isn’t much to look at – a handful of guesthouses and roadside snack shacks. But drive a little higher (7000 feet or 2000m), and you reach a viewing tower that offers a 360 panorama of Kathmandu Valley and the Himalayas.

On a clear day, you can see Mt. Everest from the tower, but alas…there was just enough cloud cover to obscure the highest peaks.

No worries, though! Everest isn’t going anywhere anytime soon – there’s always next time! It was still a spectacular view…even if the climb up the ladder to the top of the viewing tower was a little nerve-wracking.

Upon our return to dusty Kathmandu, we headed into the lively neighborhood of Thamel and into a restaurant that came highly recommended – OR2K. Strange name, amazing atmosphere.

The first thing you notice when you walk in is the HEAT that wraps around you like a warm, cozy blanket. This is the first place we felt indoor heating, courtesy of the enormous heat lamps scattered around the restuarants (which I’m fairly sure would be a health care violation and fire hazard in any other country, but hey, when in Nepal…). Black lights line the ceiling and candles illuminate the tables that sit low to the ground, with comfy cushions for patrons to dine on. Take off your shoes, be escorted to said table, and be handed a glow in the dark menu.


Seriously, this place was awesome.

We selected a cheese platter for two, comprised of a variety of locally made cheeses – cow, water buffalo, yak, and goat were all on offer, with veggies and freshly baked breads (even gluten free buckwheat roti for Jeremy!) Dessert was a chocolate-pumpkin tart on a gluten free pecan crust.

Hands down, best meal of the trip so far, and one of the coolest restaurants I’ve ever eaten in!

Bus Journey to Pokhara

Our day began at 6am – still pitch black and near freezing outside. We awoke to discover there was a taxi strike (apparently this happens all the time here), so chances of getting a taxi to the bus station were zero.

So what did the awesome staff at our guesthouse do? They WALKED us probably a mile through the dark, winding streets of Kathmandu to the road where our bus to Pokhara sat waiting. And I’m glad they did, because even with Google Maps I’m pretty sure we would have gotten lost!

The first thing we noticed when we boarded the $8 bus was a big sign advertising Free Wifi. We’re in a country with almost no infrastructure, no indoor heating, barely passable roadways, and frequent power cuts…but they have FREE WIFI on their long distance buses.

Craziness.

Anyway, we grabbed a few hard-boiled eggs on the roadside for “breakfast” before we set on our six hour (make that eight-and-a-half hour) bus ride 130 miles (200km) northwest to the scenic lakeside town of Pokhara. Even for the well-seasoned traveler, this bus ride will test every ounce of your physical, mental, and emotional energy.

Here’s why:

For starters (you guessed it) there’s no heat onboard. I was SO RELIEVED to see AIR CONDITIONING vents for travelers in the summertime, but those of us who visit in the winter? We can freeze our butts off, apparently, because that’s exactly what we did. Huddled under every layer of clothing we owned, hands buried in gloves and extra beanies, double layers of snowboarding socks…all to stay alive.

Okay, maybe not STAY ALIVE, but it was pretty darn cold.

Then there’s the road itself. I don’t think “hairpin turns” does this road justice, because you’re not factoring in the completely vertical valley walls, thousands of feet above (and below) you, nor the noticeable lack of guard rails, nor the reduced visibility from dust or fog, nor the maniacal drivers of buses, trucks, cars, and motorbikes, nor the occasional rogue cow or herd of goats, nor the many incidents of rockfall that have splayed across the roadways (creating major backups while people attempt to clean the mess).

That whole 30-times-more-likely-to-die-on-Nepal-roads-than-anywhere-else-in-the-world-thing? I understand now. Loud and clear.

Obviously, we survived the ordeal, because I am sitting here writing to you. But between the cold, the bumps, the wild careening around turns, the hacking Chinese tourists behind us, the relentless screeching of the brakes and shifting of the gears…it was a long, looooooooooooooooooooooong day.

But the scenery, I have to say, made it worth it. Beautiful river valleys, terraced hillsides, lush green forests, banana trees, tiny towns, and an occasional glimpse of the Himalayas…it was spectacular. Staring out the window gave us something to do other than think about our imminent cases of frostbite. Along the way, the bus stopped for both buffet breakfast and lunch, at cute little roadside restaurants, which was unexpectedly nice and gave us a chance to get the ice cold blood moving again.

As we neared Pokhara, the mighty peaks of the Annapurna range glistened on the horizon. We’re still traveling through thick jungle, mind you, but just above it are these glittering white peaks between 25,000-27,500 feet (7,500-8,100m) high.

Banana trees and Himalayas…who’d have thought?
First clear view of Annapurna

Truly, utterly mind-blowing.

After aforementioned bus escapades and one lengthy traffic jam less than a mile from our destination, we arrived in the idyllic town of Pokhara. Thrilled to be getting OFF THE BUS, we took a short taxi ride to our lovely $20/night accommodation at Hotel Orchid. Our local trekking guide, Akash, was there to greet us and discuss the details of the trek we decided upon – the 4-day Poon Hill trek at the beginning of the Annapurna Circuit.

After the necessary trekking permit paperwork was complete, we headed to a nearby store to rent sleeping bags and decent hiking shoes for the journey. With the last of our energy, we stumbled up to our sixth-floor room (no elevator, of course) just in time to see the sun setting and the Himalayas lit up in golden-pink alpenglow.

It was an awesome end to a VERY long day!

TGFHH – Thank Goodness For Happy Hour!
A Temple and Food Crawl in Kathmandu, Nepal

A Temple and Food Crawl in Kathmandu, Nepal

Well, the good news is that we survived our first night in Nepal. It was dark (as I suppose most nights are) and frigid enough to preserve a mammoth, but hey…we lived. I was pretty darn relieved when I woke up alive in the morning!

Breakfast was a simple meal of eggs, toast, coffee, and tea in our guesthouse. Then we stepped outside and into a taxi to head over to the Royal Thai Embassy – first things first, gotta get those visas renewed! We wound through the narrow little streets and more than a few traffic jams (in something resembling roundabouts) before we turned onto a little dirt road and bumped along past a few other embassies. Then we noticed…

It was closed.

Big metal gates loomed ominously at the entrance, blocking our view of the inside. A kindly looking Nepalese man was sitting outside and informed us that the embassy was closed today – and tomorrow – for the New Year’s holiday. (It’s January 2nd, by the way.)

Well. This puts a big ol’ monkey wrench in our travel plans! With the processing time, we were already looking at spending 4 of our 10 days in Nepal in Kathmandu, which – don’t get me wrong, it’s a cool city – was not exactly the reason we came here. The mountains are calling!! If we waited 2 more days and then sat around for another 3 days while they processed our visas, we’d be spending almost our entire trip here in the city.

Not gonna happen. Not when I’m so close to mountains like Everest and Annapurna.

So, alas, we won’t be renewing our Thai visas in Nepal. Better luck next time, amigos!

We called our soon-to-be friends, Elise and Cameron, and informed them that our morning at the embassy took MUCH less time than anticipated! They gave us a spot to meet up, and we returned to our loyally waiting taxi driver. Fifteen minutes later (with temperatures still hovering around 40F, or 5C), we arrived at the gate of Boudha Stupa.

Boudha Stupa

Not to sound stupa (haha), but what exactly is a stupa? Don’t worry, we asked the same question. “Stupa” is a Sanskrit word meaning “heap,” and is a large mound-like structure containing some sort of relics (usually remains of Buddhist monks) that is revered as a holy site and used as a place of worship and meditation. This one, incidentally, is the largest stupa in all of Asia and the holiest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet.

Got all that? Good. Moving on.

Boudha Stupa is quite the impressive sight. Long fluttering lines of prayer flags stretch out from every corner of the square and attach at the top of a massive (118 feet or 36m high) golden spire perched atop a semi-circular white mound. On every side of the spire, you see colorful painted eyes staring back at you – the eyes of Buddha, or the “Wisdom Eyes,” gazing in all four directions to remind believers that Buddha is all-seeing and all-knowing.

The sight of the Stupa, the long rows of prayer wheels, the altars and sweet-smelling incense, and the devotees circling the complex (one man was literally crawling on his belly around the perimeter, kissing the ground with each crawl forward) is a vivid reminder that you are in a very, VERY foreign land.

This sweet old couple was VERY excited to take a photo with us!

We crossed the street to visit the “mini” Boudhanath – basically a smaller replica of the stupa – which provided some nice uninterrupted photo ops.

After getting our fill of temples for the day, our friends led us on a food crawl to some of their favorite local eating spots. First up was a plate full of spicy, crispy vegetable pakodas – something akin to a fritter – with a yummy cilantro and chili dipping sauce.

We washed that down with an entire tandoori roasted chicken, for a little less than $6US.

With our appetites whetted, we wandered down the dusty streets to eatery #2. Here we feasted on mountains of garlic naan bread, fresh from the tandoori oven at the entrance, along with cumin-spiced Jeera rice and our first bowl of dal baht – a lentil and tomato based “stew” that is a staple of the Nepalese diet.

Everything was tasty, but it paled next to the star of the show: butter paneer masala. This is not the sweetish orange goopy butter masala you get at Indian restaurants. Oh, no, my friends. These are the biggest, freshest chunks of paneer cheese (made from water buffalo milk) you’ve ever imagined, drowning in a rich, creamy gravy that – I kid you not – has an entire STICK of butter sitting on top, slowly melting into the spicy goodness.

Julia Child would have been proud.

In a dairy-induced coma, we stumble onward, this time boarding a local shuttle (translation = ancient, rickety minivan) that eventually had TWENTY people crammed inside. (Yes, I counted.)

We breathed in gallons of dust (is dust measured in gallons?) as we maneuvered through the endless traffic, eventually stopping a few blocks away from Durbar Square. We were definitely in one of the busiest neighborhoods of the city!

 

Busy Kantipath Road

women selling fruit, kathmandu, nepal

Tea shop, Kathmandu, Nepal
Tea shop

shopping, kathmandu, nepal

shopping, kathmandu, nepal
Do you suppose they meant “Adidas?”

Durbar Square

After laughing at some of the knockoff name brands, we headed south (breathing in more dust) towards Durbar Square. As far back as the year 1069, this was the site of the Kathmandu Kingdom Royal Palace. The palace, temples, and surrounding buildings have been rebuilt and replaced countless times over the centuries due to earthquakes – the most recent of which was April 25, 2015. An earthquake measuring 7.8 in magnitude rocked the Kathmandu Valley, killing 9,000 people and injuring an additional 22,000.

All over the city, you see grim reminders of the recent Nepal quake. Wide gaps exist where storefronts or homes once stood, little more than a pile of bricks and rubble – even two years later. The magnificent structures around Durbar Square – the ones that survived the quake – are covered in scaffolding and supported from the ground by enormous wooden beams.

Entrance to Durbar Square, kathmandu, nepal
Entrance to Durbar Square

earthquake damage, durbar square, kathmandu, nepal

earthquake damage, durbar square, kathmandu, nepal

pigeons in durbar square, kathmandu, nepal

hindu god, kathmandu, nepal
Hindu carving, Durbar Square

hindu carving, kathmandu, nepal

bricks for rebuilding in kathmandu, nepal

I can only imagine how beautiful it must have looked before this recent quake…and how many times it’s been rebuilt before this last episode!

On our way through the Square, we snagged tiny cups of AMAZING masala Chai tea mixed with water buffalo milk, which gave the spicy concoction a very rich, buttery flavor.

Warmed up and caffeinated from our tea, we meandered until dusk through Durbar Square and the narrow neighboring streets of Indra Chowk.

narrow streets of Indra Chowk, Kathmandu, Nepal

Saree shop, Indra Chowk, Kathmandu, Nepal
Saree shop
Beads galore in Indra Chowk, Kathmandu, Nepal
Beads galore in Indra Chowk
"Secret" attic shop, Indra Chowk, Kathmandu, Nepal
“Secret” attic shop, Indra Chowk

Indrachok, kathmandu, nepal

As the temperature started to drop, Elise and Cameron took us for one final Nepal specialty to try – a sweet Lassi (yogurt drink) with dried fruit and pistachios.

And the verdict? The perfect end to a perfect day of sightseeing in Nepal!

Introduction to Nepal: Exploring the Colorful Streets of Kathmandu

Introduction to Nepal: Exploring the Colorful Streets of Kathmandu

I’m currently sitting under 2 duvets, wearing 3 pairs of socks, a furry beanie, and 4 layers of long-sleeved shirts. I’m doing this because the hotel I’m staying in – like nearly all structures in Nepal – has NO HEAT.

By the way, did I mention it’s the first of January? Whose brilliant idea was it to come to Nepal – the “rooftop of the world” – in JANUARY?

Oh, wait. It was my idea.

Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive…

And it seemed like a brilliant idea at the time. Because I’m telling ya…eighteen months of nonstop 90F (30C) weather in Thailand and Malaysia makes a week of “cooler” weather sound mighty appealing.

At the moment, though, it’s about 40F (4C) outside, and it feels like about MINUS 40 inside this icebox of a hotel room. That brilliant idea I had to escape the heat of Bangkok is suddenly sounding more like a suicide mission. If this blog ends halfway through, assume the worst…that I am a frozen cadaver, a lanky blond icicle somewhere in downtown Kathmandu.

But I digress.

You might be shocked to learn that Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal (and, if today is any indication, one of the coldest cities on earth), is less than a 3-hour plane ride from Bangkok (which is literally the HOTTEST city on earth, mean temperature). This is especially surprising that Nepal sits at the same latitude (27 degrees north) as the sunny, tropical state of Florida.

Don’t believe me? Check a map!

Anyway, the flight out of Bangkok takes you through scenic northern Thailand, skirts the turquoise blue coastline of Myanmar and the gray haze of Bangladesh, and finally descends over the surprisingly green Kathmandu Valley and the foothills of the Himalayas. Then again, maybe all the green shouldn’t be so surprising – this is a tropical country. It just happens to have the world’s tallest mountains in its backyard!

Over the Myanmar Coast
Kathmandu Valley
Landing in Kathmandu

Immigration was a breeze, too – one of the fastest and most efficient I’ve seen anywhere. You enter the quiet, cozy airport and queue up at a row of kiosks, where you scan your passport and enter all pertinent info. Then you walk over to the payment counter and hand over US$25 for a 15-day tourist visa. Finally you head over to the Mr. Nepalese Customs Officer, who places a shiny little sticker in your passport and wishes you a pleasant stay in his country.

The whole process took less than 15 minutes. Brilliant.

Exiting the airport wasn’t as much of a zoo as I’d expected, and while there were a handful of touts offering taxis and hotels, they were far less aggressive than those you find in other Asian locales. Our guesthouse arranged a free pickup for us, and we were delighted to find a smiling man holding up a sign that read “Amy Rogers.”

Easy as 1, 2, 3.

It was a disappointingly cloudy day as we climbed into the waiting car, but the gray skies did little to diminish from the vibrant colors that surrounded us. From silk scarves to prayer flags, from brightly painted guesthouses and temples to shops full of trekking gear and handicrafts – even on a gray winter day, the city of Kathmandu was bustling with color and energy.

Before we even reached our guesthouse, we knew we were going to love it here.

We chose to stay near Thamel, the backpacker quarter, for easy access to restaurants, shops, and the Thai Embassy (which we will visit tomorrow to renew our visas). Our check-in at Kathmandu Madhuban Guesthouse (conveniently located next to the top-ranked restaurant in Kathmandu) was just as painless as the rest of the journey, where we were quickly whisked up to our simple (and freezing) but clean and spacious room.

Kathmandu Madhuban Guesthouse
Rooftop of Madhuban Guesthouse
I have no idea what’s up with the random shoe…

Lunch (and dinner, for that matter) were next door at Blueberry Kitchen, a new restaurant known for its awesome selection of both traditional Nepalese and Italian/American offerings. We warmed ourselves with a delicious masala chai tea and honey latte before our first meals in Nepal arrived.

I’d chosen a fusion dish of homemade tagliatelle with eggplant, peppers, and yak cheese. Don’t let the yak scare you; it’s mild, salty, and creamy, very much like a fresh mozzarella.

Jeremy chose a local dish, chicken chiolla – basically a spicy “stew” of grilled chicken, garlic, and ginger, served with steamed rice.

Fantastic.

Dinner was just as good (maybe even better). We went all local this time with dishes of chicken and vegetable momos (spicy pan fried dumplings, not totally unlike perogies), butter paneer masala, and aloo sadeko (a cold, spicy potato salad). Dessert was a homemade yogurt-based cheesecake with graham cracker crust and a drizzle of chocolate.

I now officially understand why this humble little establishment has been ranked and reviewed so highly. The food and service were both OUTSTANDING.

The little bit of time that remained was spent wandering the narrow, colorful streets of Thamel, past all sorts of touristy shops, cafes, hotels, and tour companies.

Although Kathmandu is undeniably busy (and a little dirty), it’s nowhere near the scale of activity you’d find in a city like, say, New Delhi or Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a “good” level of energy – enough to invigorate you as a traveler without overwhelming or exhausting you.

The people are just lovely, too, and the level of spoken English here is impressive. After more than a year of struggling to understand (and be understood) in Bangkok, it’s a breath of fresh air to come to Kathmandu and be able to have a real, meaningful conversation with the locals. Everyone we’ve met so far has been polite, quiet, and friendly, always with a smile on their face.

Aside from the imminent threat of hypothermia, what’s not to love?