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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?