Nepal; a culture shock, tourists and incredible mountains

To explore my interests I wanted to take part in new activities and I decided a trekking could be it. What better country for trekking than Nepal can you imagine? In the end of 2009 I took off for 10 days of trekking and another 2 weeks of culture, activities and wildlife.For some odd reason (probably a financial one to be honest) I decided to fly with Arkefly to Kathmandu. Yes it saved me a couple of hundreds of euros but I had no entertainment on board and I had my knees in my neck for about 12 hours. Besides that the plane was full with Dutch people and that’s something I don’t really like because it doesn’t add to the feeling of getting away…

Completely exhausted I arrived in Kathmandu. A shuttle finally drove me to the Kathmandu Guesthouse in the middle of Thamel, the tourist district of Nepal’s capital. The first day I rented a bike to make a little daytrip to Bhaktapur. When cycling around Kathmandu you have no idea what side of the road people drive because it’s just one big chaos on the road. You therefore have to keep your concentration. A couple of hours later and a culture shock richer I arrived in the medieval town of Bhaktapur of which most architecture dates back from the 17th century.

Of course the oldness of this town is its main charm. Futhermore there are a couple of temples to see and you can enjoy a decent lunch. My favourite activity however was watching the locals. In Nepal there are no elderly homes or whatsoever so it’s great to walk around and observe all those characters. You simply wonder through the streets and at every corner a new face pops up.

The next day I explored Kathmandu itself. In Kathmandu and in Nepal in general as I found out later, locals and tourists are pretty much separated. Every city had its tourist district where all the hotels and guesthouses are located. In these districts tourists are concentrated and hardly any local lives there. Tourists then visit the sights away from the locals. To cut a long story short, when traveling in Nepal I had the feeling to be amongst tourists instead of being amongst locals. In the beginning this is not bad but once you start recognizing this pattern it gets annoying!

Well enough complaining, back to the report. I visited Buddhanath, the main temple of Kathmandu. The main Buddhist stupa is one of the largest in the world and the complex is a UNESCO world heritage site nowadays. It was of course pretty touristy but still a lot of fun and very interesting to walk around. I even had a chat with a monk, who could have thought that…

Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan all have a main square called Durbur square, a plaza opposite an old royal palace. These squares are full of entertainment. Markets and therefore many salesmen are around and there are temples to visit. Surrounding the squares restaurants are present in abundance and from its rooftops you have great views. During my visit to Nepal I visited all three Durbar squares and observed some great local life!

In the evening I had diner one time in a nice Indian restaurant in Thamel called Third Eye. I heard some people talking about trekkings and joined the conversation. It turned out one of them was a guide and half an hour later my trekking was arranged. The so-called Jomsom was now on my agenda.

The next morning I took the bus to Pokhara where I stayed overnight in another tourist district. This one was beautifully located along a lake, so what the heck. I bought some shorts because it was much warmer than I expected and the trekking could begin. Seven days of walking in the mountains would take me to Muktinath and another two days would take me back to Jomsom from where a plane would return me to Pokhara.

The first day was a long day but the walking wasn’t too hard. I walked for about eight hours through forests and open fields. I couldn’t see the spectacular mountain scenery yet but it was a good introduction to trekking for me. After the chaos of Pokhara and especially Kathmandu the silence in the mountains was very welcome. That evening I met a lot of other trekkers in the guesthouse and we decided to walk together the next day. Some people were not able to join because their guide was from a different caste. Yes, life is different over there.

The next morning we woke up very early to start hiking. We had to tackle 3200 big steps and because of the heat during the day it was best to start as early as possible. At 5.30 am I was sweating already and by 8 am I arrived at the top of the steps to have breakfast, very welcome. After that the hike was pretty easy and it was nice to walk with the other people to have a chat every now and then. The next morning another early wake-up call would lead me to Poon Hill to witness the sunrise and see a 360 degrees view of the himalayan mountain range. Not too bad…

The next couple of days the scenery started to change from green forests to grey open desert plains. The group had split because not everyone was on the same trek and therefore had gone different directions. By now I was walking with my German friend Oliver and a Belgian girl who was born in Nepal and our guides, some funny characters. Along the road you’ll see some great faces again. People who tell big stories without talking…

We walked for days and days and passed tiny little villages where we enjoyed the hospitality of the local people who turned their houses into basic hotels. They served food ranging from lasagna to burritos to their own Dal bhat. The story goes that trekkers in the early days took recipes with them and taught the locals to cook their food, that’s why all the Western dishes are on the menu. In most cases the locals haven’t eaten it themselves and that’s probably why a burrito sometimes looks more like lasagna and vice versa!

We finally passed Jomsom and Kagbeni before we arrived on some sort of plateau. In the distance you could see the Thorong La pass, the pass you need to overcome in order to complete the Annapurna circuit. Just before Thorong La a small village could be seen, Muktinath. The trek to Muktinath is actually a true pilgrimage but for us Westerners, not being hindu, we were not even allowed to go inside most of the temples. Another remote village close to Muktinath is Jharkot. I found it very impressive.

On the way back to Jomsom we were in a slight relief. We didn’t have to walk uphill anymore and the distance was relatively short so hiking around four hours a day would do the job. The scenery was spectacular with huge mountains surrounding the deserts and some plantations here and there. When you looked closer you could see temples and stupas on the horizon. Regardless of the immense beauty of the region it was hard to believe people were actually living here. No other mode of transportation besides their own legs meant they were pretty much stuck there. I was traveling from one side of the world to the other, they would most likely spend their lifes within a kilometer or maybe two…

After the trekking I relaxed for a day in Pokhara to rest my legs and possibly my body in general. My guide from the trekking offered me a little package. Two days of rafting would lead me to Chitwan, the national park of Nepal. The rafting sounded exciting to me so I decided to go.

Most people from my homecountry are at ease in the water. I’m on the other hand not a true genius in the water. Especially under water I can totally freak out so rafting was a bit of a challenge.

A bit scared of the bigger rapids we started with rapids of level two and three. It was fun but not the most exciting. The scenery was beautiful though and because of the easy rapids we had plenty of time to absorb it. We finished the first day however with a rapid of level four. Everybody was paddling as instructed but I was paddling nothing more than air. We were shouting and screaming of enjoyment and water flew over the boat. Half a minute I had no idea where we were going (rationally of course you knew exactly where you were going, come on how many options are there…) but it was great fun, probably because I didn’t fall out of the boat!

After camping at the shore of the river we rafted another couple of hours the next day before I took the bus to Chitwan. This national park was a bit of a letdown, especially after being in Africa twice. The journey to the park however was really exciting because the bus was full and therefore we, myself and the other tourists, had to sit on the roof!

After seeing the rhino from the neck of an elephant (it seemed it was glued to the ground to make sure everyone would see it…) I left Chitwan. I headed back to Kathmandu where I met Oliver again and we had a nice lassi, our favourite drink, to finish the trip!

Click here to see more pictures of my trip to Nepal!

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