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.
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.
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.
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!