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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?

Spectacular Ko Phi Phi: The Jewel of the Andaman Sea

Spectacular Ko Phi Phi: The Jewel of the Andaman Sea

The brilliant sunlight warms your skin as you make your way to the bow of the ferry. You inhale a deep breath of salty sea air and sigh, gazing out at the crystal clear waters of the Andaman Sea and the tiny green islands on the horizon. You pause along the railing and take a sip of sweet, creamy Thai iced tea – probably your third one of the day – and think again how lucky you are to be here.

Today you’re on your way to Ko Phi Phi, one of the most beautiful (and easily accessible) islands on earth.

I recently had the privilege of visiting this gem of an island with my husband and a group of friends. We caught the ferry from nearby Phuket, Phi Phi’s bigger and better-known neighbor, and spent three glorious days exploring the beaches, bays, hills, and forests that make this island the ultimate tropical paradise.

Why Ko Phi Phi is So Amazing

Can you imagine snorkeling through waters as clear as glass and as warm as bathwater? Can you envision a narrow isthmus of land surrounded by spectacular twin lagoons – one a deep blue color and the other turquoise-green? Can you see the soaring green cliffs rising dramatically from the sea and stretching into the cloudless sky? Can you picture yourself climbing up one of those cliffs – which we nicknamed “The Cliff of Insanity” – on nothing but a tattered bit of netting, with sharp rocks and pounding surf below you?

We did it! And I’m eager to share our incredible story with you.

Travelicious.world recently published my first paid travel article about our amazing adventures on Ko Phi Phi. If you’re planning your own trip to beautiful southern Thailand – or if you just want to do a little armchair traveling – I encourage you to check it out!

Click here to read more about Ko Phi Phi!

My Love Affair With Singapore (And Its Food)

My Love Affair With Singapore (And Its Food)

Allow me to warn you in advance that I may start waxing poetic during this blog. After a 6 year absence, I’ve just spent 3 days in one of my favorite countries, and the love affair with Singapore has started up all over again. So please forgive me if I start overusing such words as love, awesome, beautiful, spectacular, delicious, perfect, and incredible.

Because, well…Singapore just naturally IS all of those things.

downtown singapore

It can’t help itself. We’re talking about an independent country that is actually just a big city on a tiny island at the southern tip of Malaysia. Does 5.5 million people on an island that’s only 276 square miles (half the size of LA or NYC) sound like total and utter chaos to you? If it were anywhere else, it probably would be.

But not Singapore. Singapore is an incredible (overused adjective #1) blend of very different cultures – Chinese, Indian, Malay, and British – that has somehow produced the cleanest, quietest, safest, and most orderly city on the planet. Sound boring or dull? It’s just the opposite. The effortless blend of so many cultures, the unique and impressive feats of architecture, the vibrant colors of perfectly manicured lawns, gardens, and tropical trees, and a mouth-watering array of the freshest, spiciest, most flavorful dishes you’ve ever tasted…

singapore

Hey! Put that suitcase down. You can buy your plane ticket and pack your bags AFTER you finish reading this, thank you very much. Besides, I haven’t even told you one of the best parts. Guess what the official language of Singapore is?

Yep. It’s English. Not the broken-sorta-kinda-maybe-a-little English you get in Malaysia or India, but straight up, first language, fluent (British) English. So forget the language barrier, because there is NONE. That makes navigating this little island-city-paradise a total breeze!

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes. Saying how awesome (overused adjective #37) this place is.

The historic Raffles Hotel
The historic Raffles Hotel

Singapore Food Crawl 101

We touched down in Singapore on Friday after a smooth 2-hour flight from Bangkok. Our friend SherMay was there to greet us and escort us to lunch – because, after all, the official pastime of Singapore is EATING. You think Americans eat a lot? Ha! We got nothin’ on the Singaporeans. They eat a minimum of 5 meals a day, not to mention all the snacks in-between. They wander from hawker center to hawker center like devotees making pilgrimages to holy sites, because let’s face it…in Singapore, food IS the national religion.

So we sit down in a blissfully air conditioned restaurant and jump right into the good stuff. SherMay orders a very traditional Singaporean starter called ota, basically a spicy fish “cake” made out of chopped up mackerel and lots of chili. Entrees arrive in the form of char kway teow (thick rice noodles with shrimp, clams, egg, sprouts, scallions, and chili, wok fried until slightly charred) and assam laksa (a spicy, sour fish soup with rice vermicelli). Dessert is cendol, a colorful blend of shaved ice, grass jelly, red beans, assorted fruit, and a generous, heavenly dollop of gula melaka (sweet palm sugar). We waddle out of the restaurant in food-induced comas, stuffed to the gills but already eagerly anticipating our next meals.

Char Kway Teow
Char Kway Teow

By the way, we haven’t even left the AIRPORT yet.

When we do at last venture to the outside world, we’re greeted with a blast of humidity and warm (but not TOO hot) tropical air. At only 2 degrees north of the equator, Singapore is the epitome of endless summer. Currently they’re moving into their rainiest season, which made for some killer thunderstorms and cooler temperatures (translation = 85 instead of 95).

singapore rain tree

We drive down a gorgeous tree-lined (rain trees, I later learned) road that looks like it belongs in a Disney theme park. Seriously, not a single blade of grass was out of place. To our left was a narrow strip of beach and dozens of enormous cargo ships and, off on the horizon, the Indonesian island of Batam. A short drive took us to our Airbnb accommodation for the weekend, where we dumped our bags and proceeded to head almost immediately to dinner.

Because, you know, it had been about 2 hours since we last ate. That’s like 2 days in Singapore time!

Singapore Strait
Singapore Strait

So SherMay and her husband Fred take us to a nearby Chinese restaurant, assuring us that it was more “Singaporean Chinese” than “China Chinese.” This is no small point; the Singaporeans take great pride in their unique and delicious food, as they should!

Over a pot of freshly brewed chrysanthemum tea, we savor course after course of Singaporean specialties – BBQ-honey fried pork, cereal shrimp (as the name suggests, it is shrimp rolled in crushed breakfast cereal and deep fried to a perfect crisp), olive fried rice (had to try that one), ginger-glazed grouper, and broccoli sautéed with fresh lump crab meat.

singapore dinner

Dessert was a warm yam paste topped with cashews and sweetened condensed milk – think an Asian version of sweet potato casserole, and you’re on the right track.

The verdict? AMAZING. (Overused adjective #62).

After a night in our Airbnb under neon pink Minion sheets (hey, it’s budget accommodation, okay?) we awaken to a truly awesome thunderstorm. Fred is kind enough to dash over to our building with an umbrella before we journey down the street for breakfast in a VERY local hawker center (translation = I haven’t been stared at that much since India). In case the term is unfamiliar, hawker centers are simply a collection of street food vendors that have been moved into one big area (like an outdoor cafeteria) so that they can be monitored for quality and food safety. Works for me – less walking, better food!

sinagpore

So Fred takes us on the grand culinary tour of Lot 16 Hawker Center, from Singaporean to Indian to Chinese to Muslim Malay. Some of it, like nasi lemak, we know very well from our time in Malaysia. Other dishes, like fried carrot cake, are totally new to us.

Wait a second, did you say…FRIED CARROT CAKE?

Yes, I did, although let me add that it’s not the frosting-covered carrot cake you’re picturing from home. Singaporean fried carrot cake is, in fact, a delectable blend of white carrots (or white radish) and rice flour, pounded into a neat cake-like texture, then wok-fried to a slight char with egg, scallions, and plenty of hot chili.

Singaporean fried carrot cake
Singaporean fried carrot cake

Sound delicious? IT IS. So much, in fact, that I nearly cried when I couldn’t find it for lunch yesterday.

After breakfast, we bid farewell to Fred and took the train downtown to play tourists for the day. The sights were all wonderfully familiar to us – the jaw-dropping skyline of the business district, the water spewing out of the mouth of the Merlion fountain, the flying “ship” atop Marina Bay Sands Hotel, the colorful, quirky eateries at Clarke Quay, and the nostalgia of the century-old Raffles Hotel, where writers like Ernest Hemingway used to frequent.

Singapore Harbor and Marina Sands Hotel
Singapore Harbor and Marina Bay Sands Hotel
"Cloud Nine" Contemporary Art
“Cloud Nine” Contemporary Art
Singapore River
Singapore River
Clarke Quay
Clarke Quay
Traveler's palms in the courtyard of Raffles Hotel
Traveler’s palms in the courtyard of Raffles Hotel

(Fun fact: Ever heard of a cocktail called the Singapore Sling? It was invented by a bartender at the Raffles in 1915, back when men hung out at the bar and drank in droves but it was still socially unacceptable for women to consume alcohol in public. The bartender invented a delicious concoction of gin, cherry brandy, Cointreau, fruit juices, and grenadine for the ladies to drink, and because of its bright pink color, everyone just assumed the girls were drinking juice. BRILLIANT.)

Anyway, strolling through the tree-lined streets of Singapore was like visiting an old friend. We were struck all over again by how clean and quiet and orderly it is. There’s no graffiti, no honking horns, no litter, nothing to spoil the perfection of its appearance. With so little land area to work with, the city is almost entirely vertical, with glittering high-rise hotels and office buildings as far as the eye can see. Down below, you can still catch a glimpse of the Singapore of old – a tucked-away Chinese restaurant with bright red lanterns dangling at the entrance, or a long row of joined townhouses with slanted rooves and brightly painted shutters.

singapore

singapore

St. Andrew's Cathedral
St. Andrew’s Cathedral

It doesn’t matter where you look or which street you turn down. There’s no perfect city on earth, but if there WAS one, it would be Singapore.

We wandered the city streets for hours – snapping pictures, enjoying the views, and grabbing $1 cups of sweet yam and red bean ice cream from a street vendor (because we hadn’t already eaten 4 times that day).

singapore

Dinner was at a new upscale hawker center called Glutton’s Bay – appropriate, since Singapore turns you into a glutton as soon as you arrive. Jeremy got a gargantuan portion of Peking duck fried rice (pausing here to allow you to wipe the drool from your screen) while I sampled one of Singapore’s most famous dishes…chili crabs! We’re talking massive Sri Lankan crabs swimming in a pool of tomato-based “gravy” loaded with chili and other delectable spices. Fiery hot, slightly sweet, perfectly savory…in a word, DELICIOUS (overused adjective #88).

gluttons-bay-hawker-center-singapore

chili crabs singapore

In case you haven’t noticed yet, we like the food in Singapore. A LOT. Why there isn’t a Singaporean restaurant on every corner in every city around the globe, I’ll never know. The world is seriously missing out!!

singapore

Yesterday we hung out with SherMay and Fred and (you guessed it) ate more food. For breakfast I tried wheat toast with kaya spread (a locally made coconut jam). Then we wandered through a local grocery store for a while before we found a goldmine of imported New Zealand-made Cadbury chocolate, including our two favorite flavors – Mint Bubbly, and Hokey Pokey (crispy butterscotch bits in milk chocolate). We bought embarrassingly large bars for ourselves and will be eating Cadbury for weeks (okay, maybe a few days) to come.

Last night included (shockingly) more culinary exploration. Because of Jeremy’s gluten allergy, we’ve never wandered into any of those steamed bun/dumpling places that are all over Asia. Last night I grabbed a few steamed BBQ pork buns and OH MY…where have they been all my life??

singapore pork bun

I washed them down with a Malaysian dish of nasi lemak – fragrant pandan rice cooked in coconut milk, topped with fried chicken, fried eggs, peanuts, and a red hot sambal sauce. Taste bud heaven.

Jeremy snagged a dish we’ve been wanting to try for a long time now – black chicken soup! No, it’s not black soup; the CHICKEN is black. The breed is a Chinese silky, and if you look it up, you will see that the chicken’s feathers and skin are naturally ALL BLACK. The Chinese traditionally use it in a “healthy” soup filled with lots of yummy vegetables and herbs.

black chicken soup singapore

Verdict? Insanely good. (And yes…black chicken tastes like chicken!)

To sum it all up: We love, love, LOVE Singapore, and it’s always sad when we have to leave. If money were no object, we’d be living there in a heartbeat and I’d need a wheelchair to roll my morbidly obese body from hawker center to hawker center. (Seriously, how do the locals stay so thin? All they do is eat!)

Anyway, I’m rambling. I tend to do that. And if I haven’t convinced you by now that Singapore is an awesome place, then I have failed as a writer. I should just quit and stick to what I’m good at.

Which is…ummmmm…eating?

Seriously, though, Singapore rocks, and it belongs at the top of the list of any trip through Southeast Asia. It may not be as cheap as its neighbors to the north, but trust me, guys…it’s worth it. Factor a weekend into your budget and go for it. You will most definitely NOT be disappointed.

singapore

A (Slightly Terrifying) Rickshaw Ride Through Old Delhi

A (Slightly Terrifying) Rickshaw Ride Through Old Delhi

This post is a snippet from my new eBook, Gypsy Giraffe: Travel Tales From India. To learn more about the book, click here!

Please be advised – DO NOT visit Delhi if you have any of the following medical conditions:

Anxiety, nervousness, sensitivity to loud noises, sensitivity to dust or smog, claustrophobia, fear of crowds, fear of honking horns, fear of rogue cows, fear of stray dogs, fear of spiders, fear of traffic accidents, fear of crazy drivers, fear of having a toe or an arm amputated by a passing motorbike, fear of imminent death…

Basically, if you are afraid of ANYTHING at all, Delhi will be your worst nightmare. Chances are very good that you will NOT survive.

If, on the other hand, you thrive on chaos, if you’ve been known to waste away in front of exotic travel shows, and if you’re not afraid to put your life into the hands of some totally random, mentally unstable rickshaw driver…you might just have an AWESOME time exploring this city!

In fact, look up the word “insanity” in your closest dictionary. You won’t find a photo of a mental hospital or Grigori Rasputin. I guarantee that you will find a picture of Delhi.

Because this city is – in one word – INSANE.

But not in a bad way. Oh, we had a few scary moments today for sure, but our reactions were more along the lines of “Wow, this is so crazy and cool!” instead of “Wow, we just almost died!”

Our day technically began in Agra with checking out of our hotel and catching a 2.5-hour train ride up to Delhi. Our arrival into the city’s southern Hazrat Nizamuddin train station was pretty much what we expected – PANDEMONIUM.

There is nothing quite like stepping off a quiet, peaceful train and into a bustling third-world metropolis of 25 MILLION PEOPLE. We’re talking three times the total population of New York City! There is simply nothing (not even 10 days in other parts of India) to prepare you for the madness, the noise, the smells, and the chaos of New Delhi. It’s like going from a tiny, peaceful cabin in the woods to Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

Except it’s not New Year’s Eve. It’s like this EVERY SINGLE DAY.

After playing the human pinball machine with 10,000 other people exiting the train station, we made our way to the rickshaw stand and proceeded to hire a certifiably insane driver to take us to our hotel. He looked like a normal human being, but the resemblance ended there.

We exited the train station by driving the WRONG WAY through the bus entrance, squeezing between gigantic tour buses with only millimeters to spare (into blind traffic, of course). En route, our driver forms nothing less than a personal murderous vendetta against one of his fellow rickshaw drivers. The two are competing for space in the same lane, trying to pass the same cars/buses at the same time, even going into oncoming traffic to “beat” one another.

We endure – not one, not two – but THREE collisions with this other (equally manic) rickshaw driver before the two finally pull over, step out of their vehicles, and start screaming at each other. Things heat up, fist bangs on each other’s rickshaws ensue, gestures grow more wild, and we’re pretty certain a full-on fistfight (or worse) is about to break out at any second.

It was like a Bollywood version of West Side Story…without the singing and dancing.

So we did what any sane passengers would do in that scenario – we grabbed our bags, got out, and ran for it!! (Seriously, guys, I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.)

Luckily it wasn’t much farther to our hotel, Bloomrooms, which is a beautiful, serene oasis in the middle of the city. We are located almost directly across from the busiest train/metro station in all of Delhi, but you’d never know it with these thick walls and courtyard-facing rooms.

It’s amazingly quiet for how NOT quiet it is once you step outside! This is the first “backpacker” type place we’ve stayed at the entire trip, and I gotta say…it’s great to be back. Downstairs is an awesome cafe with great food, board games on every table, and an endless array of your favorite 80’s music. If it was less than 100 degrees outside (in the shade), we’d be hanging out on the plush wicker furniture in the very zen-like inner courtyard, but due to the threat of imminent heat stroke, we’re opting for AC.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes.

We arrive at our hotel with the last of our rupees and set out in search of an ATM. About 2 blocks away, Jeremy has the terrible misfortune of being pooped on by a passing pigeon. All over his head. (And he’s terrified of birds and their germs to begin with). Yeah…pretty gross. So we backtracked to the hotel so he could take shower #3 of the day (you take A LOT of showers in India) before we set out again.

At this point it’s about 4pm – too late to explore any of the touristy sights. The security guard suggests a “scenic” bicycle rickshaw ride up into Old Delhi (the Muslim Quarter). “Good for photos,” he says. “Great for me,” I respond. Plus, we had yet to actually experience a bicycle rickshaw ride – we’ve only done the motorized kind – so it would be something new.

So he flags down a passing bicycle rickshaw, we hand over 100 rupees (about $1.60), and we set off for what will forever be etched in my memory as one of the most insane hours of my life. Traffic conditions like this simply don’t exist anywhere else on earth. We’re talking cars, buses, motorbikes, rickshaws, bicycles, pedestrians, cows, bulls, goats, stray dogs, children, men pulling vegetable carts, women balancing enormous bags of who-knows-what on their heads…all competing for the same space on what’s barely a two-lane road.

Add in some mountains of trash on the roadsides and some dangerously sagging electrical wires that barely miss your head, and you’re starting to get the picture.

While we were going through an “intersection,” we proceeded to crash into the bicycle rickshaw ahead of us, while another one creamed us from the side. Now, this all sounds very scary, but keep in mind that you’re traveling MAYBE three miles an hour, so these are not high-speed or injury-causing crashes. Even the highways have maximum speed limits of 40km/hour (about 25MPH), so while the traffic is crazy, there’s so much of it that no one is actually going that fast. You can usually walk faster than traffic is traveling.

This is probably the only place in the world where you can get into five accidents in one day and come away completely unscathed!

So our rickshaw drops us on Chandni Chowk, the main thoroughfare through the old quarter. This road has been the center of religious and commercial activity in the city for the past 400 years, and not much has changed over time. It’s still insanely busy and it’s still lined with temples, mosques, and bazaars selling everything from silks to jewelry to electronics to wedding attire.

It is a shopper’s heaven and a claustrophobe’s hell.

I don’t particularly love shopping or tight spaces, but somehow the maniacal atmosphere of the old city didn’t bother me one bit. After our harrowing rickshaw ride, we spent another hour or two just wandering through the bazaar, getting completely and utterly lost, gawking at the powerlines that by all logical reasoning SHOULDN’T work, and trying not to lose any fingers or toes to passing motorbikes.

The shopkeepers in the bazaar are surprisingly not pushy – you can actually walk along and “window shop” without being hounded to death like we were in Agra. It was a nice, refreshing breath of (heavily polluted) air.

So, back to my earlier warnings. Is Delhi chaotic? Yes. Overwhelming? Certainly.

And yet…there’s something magical about it, too. It’s so wildly different than the western world, such a constant assault on your senses, that it almost feels like you’ve been in a bubble your entire life. Then that bubble bursts, and you’re surrounded by more colors and sounds and smells and sights than you knew existed in one country, let alone one city street.

But you know what? It’s pretty darn awesome.

Sherpa’s Challenge: A Secret Tour of the Great Wall

Sherpa’s Challenge: A Secret Tour of the Great Wall

If I were to tell you that this elderly woman led us on a 6-mile hike up a steep mountain trail and across the Great Wall of China, would you believe me?

Our fearless Sherpa
Our fearless Sherpa

Well, time to start believing, because you’re looking at the face of our fearless leader!

Despite the jet lag, we awoke at 6:30am to prepare for our much-anticipated “Secret Wall Tour.” The specialty of Leo Hostel, the tour promised to take us to an isolated section of the Great Wall, still in its natural state, and assured us that we would be the only human beings in sight.

Quite the claim, right? Having one of the Seven Wonders of the World all to ourselves sounded too good to be true…but how could we not give it a shot?

leo hostel
The street leading to Leo Hostel

After a delicious breakfast of egg fried rice (yum!), we load into a minivan with four other hostel guests – two guys from New York who are working here as English teachers, a Canadian on holiday, and a Brit who just arrived after traveling BY TRAIN from England across Europe, to Moscow, and all the way across Siberia. (Adding that journey to my bucket list as we speak…)

So it was a fun and lively group and we set off for a 2-hour drive to the north of Beijing, dodging ridiculous traffic and streets full of buses, cars, bicycles, rickshaws, donkey-carts, peddlers, and anything else that happened to be in the way!

As we made our way out of the city, the mountains grew taller and the autumn leaves brightened. I was hoping to make it here to see the leaves turn, and I was not disappointed!! The drive was gorgeous, and – as promised – we were making our way to the absolute middle of NOWHERE.

First sighting of the Wall
First sighting of the Wall

En route, the driver pulls over to pick up this little old lady (she was MAYBE 4 feet tall) standing on the side of the road. Neither the driver nor the old woman spoke any English or offered any explanation, so we just giggled amongst ourselves and thought maybe it was the driver’s grandmother hitching a ride.

Boy, were we wrong.

Moments later our driver pulls over in a tiny valley on a one-lane road with no signs of life or civilization, where we’re promptly shooed out of the van by the little old lady. At this point, we’re beginning to wonder if we’re either: a) being kidnapped and held for ransom, or b) unknowingly signed up to be part of a bizarre Chinese science experiment.

Just when we’re certain our fate is sealed, the old lady pulls out a walking stick, points to the side of the mountain, and rattles off  a few words in Chinese. As she takes off up the trail, our driver turns the van around and disappears down the road…without us.

It’s at that moment we realize that “Grandma” is going to be our tour guide across the Great Wall of China.

And WOW, did she show us up! The trail wound around for at least a mile through dense hills and valleys before we even caught our first glimpse of the Wall. She bounded up the trail like a graceful gazelle, all the while motioning for us to keep up with her. Huffing and puffing, we did our best to comply, finally deciding that she must have been a Tibetan Sherpa in her younger years, leading treks up Everest or something!

Trying to keep up...
Trying to keep up…

Since we didn’t know her name, she didn’t speak English, and none of us spoke Chinese, we referred to her simply as “Sherpa.” And like any good Sherpa, she had plenty to teach us young ones! She’d pause along the wall and talk to us in Chinese, all smiles and laughter and absolutely the most adorable human EVER. We all fell in love with her wrinkly, joyful face and the way she’d converse with us as if we actually understood what she was saying.

It was endearing.

great wall

For the next three hours we hiked our brains out, trying (and mostly failing) to keep up with Sherpa. The fierce Siberian wind was whipping in a frenzy, nearly blowing us off the wall a few times. But the sky was as blue as could be and the trees were bright orange, yellow, and red – a perfect representation of autumn in northern China.

Climbing the Great Wall of China was everything I’d hoped and dreamed it would be…and more. True to their word, there was not another living soul in sight besides us and Sherpa. We literally had this Wonder of the World all to ourselves!

At long last, with aching backs and screaming legs, we descended via another route into this tiny village at the foot of the mountains. Lunch was served in a local family’s home, and it was far and away the best Chinese food I’ve ever tasted – steaming sticky rice, stir-fried onions, cabbage, beef and peppers, pork and celery, and stewed pumpkin. It was a symphony for the taste buds…and EXACTLY what six starving hikers needed after a grueling day with Sherpa.

Although this trek with Sherpa took place back in 2009, the memory burns brightly in my mind and is still one of my favorite travel tales to share. It was my first real experience getting off the beaten path and away from the tourist traps. Yes, the scenery was incredible. And yes, it’s some pretty good bragging rights to say that you had a section of the Great Wall of China all to yourself.

But you know what sticks out of the most in my mind?

Sherpa.

Is she still out there somewhere, leading unsuspecting backpackers across the rugged Chinese wilderness? Or is she enjoying her well-earned retirement in that little village, gazing out at the distant hills and remembering all the climbs she made? Does she have any idea the positive and powerful impression she made on me and Jeremy, and doubtless many other travelers?

There’s no way of knowing, but I certainly hope she does.