|As day 230 of Lisa and Joel's Excellent Adventure neared a close, we landed in Kathmandu, on Friday, February 16th, at 11:00 P.M local Nepali time. We grabbed a ride from the airport from some tout who took us to a guesthouse which he received a commission from. We bartered down the receptionist of The Poon Hill Guesthouse to 560 Nepali rupee (Rs), which is about $8.00 U.S. with the exchange rate, per night.
Saturday, February 17th, day 231, we had breakfast at Northfield's Cafe. Interestingly it was named Northfield's by the owner who is from Minnesota. He is nicknamed Minnesota Mike and he grew up in Northfield, Minnesota (hence the name), which is only about 40 minutes from Joel's hometown -- Red Wing. Small world, huh?
After breakfast we walked into a tourist agent across the street from our guesthouse. We inquired with the agency's merchant about a visa to India. He said it would cost $130.00 U.S. for Joel's and $120.00 U.S. for Lisa's (he said her's was cheaper because she has been there before). The price seemed a little steep to us, but the agent assured us that we couldn't get them any cheaper even if we went to the Indian Embassy and applied for them ourselves, as India had just jacked up the prices on visas for Americans. His sale was very believable and we took the bait. It turns out we could have gotten them ourselves for $50.00 U.S. each. We should have known better and asked around first, but we didn't. Stay away from Nightingale Travelers' Service -- they overcharge. Live and learn. Isn't it nice that we are taking all the traveling lumps for you and now you can benifit from our mistakes?
After getting screwed, we walked around Durbar Square and got lost in the narrow, chaotic streets of Kathmandu. Hustle and bustle, honks and beeps, touts always at your shoulder, "money change!", "buy rug!", "look in my shop!", "taxi!", "hashish!". It's definately nuts. It's amazing to see 1,000 year old statues being used to dry clothes, or holymen, with braided hair down to their knees, sitting in the lotus postion with a 1,000 mile stare. We meet a Nepali boy who lives on the streets. He was amazingily intelligent and had a sharp wit. He basically stays alive by begging.
Begging is a subject you will definitely have to deal with if you visit Nepal. To give or not to give, that is the question? Adorable little children, with smiling faces, pulling at your pants leg, saying "school pen", "sweets", "10 rupees". What could be the harm in giving? Actually it is harmful to give to beggers, particularly the children. It creates a cycle of dependence that could end up destroying the economic undercurrent of Nepal. Why work when you can make a week's wage in a few seconds from a handout from a Westerner. If you want to help, give a pack of school pens, or food, or money, or whatever to the local school, or orphanage, or other charitable organization. This way you insure that what you give is actually being utilized to its full potential benefit. Plus, you are giving through a medium that provides a buffer from the stigma and negative conotations of a direct handout.
Later that night we had dinner at The Ying Yang Restaurant, before crashing for the night back at The Poon.
February 18th, a Sunday, we climbed the steps up to Swayanbuth (Monkey Temple). It's an amazing scene. Nasty moneys are climbing all over the place. Huge hawks hover above looking for food. Monks, clad in orange robes, twist the prayer wheels as they walk around the center piece of the temple, a huge stone cone, adorned with prayer flags and a pair of sinister eyes on all four sides indicating its "all seeing" powers. The view of Kathmandu is incredible. It was definitley worth the climb.
Later, Joel got a hair cut (which took some guts) and then we enjoyed a Nepali marriage procession. It was basically a marching band that was just going off, leading a decorated car with the lucky couple aboard. It was pretty cool. All the villagers stopped to look and listen. On the way back to our guesthouse we met a pair of young Nepali boys who literally knew every single capital of the world. As we walked through the streets of Kathmandu, we blurted out the names of countries and they would respond with a quick, correct response -- amazing. The entertainment they provided didn't come without a price though. When they began to sense we were ready to move on, they tried to hit us up for some powdered milk. We had heard that it's a trick the young kids play on Westerners. They claim you are buying them a box of powdered milk that will feed them and all their brothers and sisters for a month. They say they don't want money -- they just want you to buy them some powdered milk. After you buy it for them they go back to the shop and return it for the money. It's an indirect way to beg, but it's still begging. Again, if you want to help, help in ways that are more productive, like the ones we discussed earlier.
Day 233, the 19th, we took an 8 hour bus ride from Kathmandu to Pokhara, that cost us $6.00 U.S. each. We spent the night at The Ghorkali Dee Guesthouse for 500 Rs.
Pokhara would be the lauching point for a trek in the Annapurna Himalaya Mountain Range. Permits to trek in the Annapurna Conservation Area are currently 2,000 Rs. (By the way, the Annapurna Conservation Area is currently ranked number one on The Best National Parks In The World in our Around The World Top Ten Lists.)
Day 234, the 20th, we got up early and grabbed a ride to Naya Pul, which took about one hour. From Naya Pul we started our trek which would last 5 nights, 6 days.
The first day we trekked for about 4 hours. From Naya Pul it's about a 45 minute walk up to the village of Birethanti (3,500 ft.). From Birethanti, the trail climbs northwest up a valley, passing a waterfall just as you leave Birethanti. We passed throught the villages of Ramghai and Sudame. Finally we crossed over some terraced fields and entered the village of Hille (5,000 ft.). We spent the night at a guesthouse in Hille. If you are an independent trekker, like us, you will find the Annapurna area to your liking. There are plenty of guesthouses and restaurants along the way. You don't need a guide or a porter, as you don't need to carry much gear. The facilities are very spartan, but they are adaquate. Don't expect heat, electricity, hot water showers, purified water (bring iodine tablets --you don't want to have any butt problems up in the mountains), or a wide variety of food. (We ate a rice and soup dish called dal bhat for 6 days straight!) But, without the need of a guide or porter you can save a lot of cash and have a lot more flexibility.
Wednesday, February 21st, day 235 of our adventure, the first village we encountered after Hille was Tirkedhunga (5,175 ft.). It was quickly becoming apparent that nature was not going to be the only attraction on this trek. The Nepali people are incredible. They are so friendly and warm and open -- it's incredible. And the kids -- man are they cute! Plus, seeing them involved in there daily activities is incredible. You may see an elderly women carrying a huge bundle on her back, or a traffic jam on the trek -- of sheep! In many ways life hasn't changed here for over 1,000 years.
After Tirkhedhunga, the trail crossed over a stream and then we began the climb up the infamous Ulleri Staircase. This switchbacking stairway of stone climbs 1,600 feet straight into the sky. We arrived at the top, huffing and puffing, to find the village of Ulleri (6,800 ft.). We kept on going, through the village of Banthanti, through a dense forest of twisted, gnarled, moss covered trees, and ended up at the village of Nayathanti where we ate by candlelight (no electricity here) with 3 other trekkers. All total we trekked about 5 hours this day.
Thursday, February 22nd, day 236 of our adventure, we continued our trek, leaving Nayathanti for a further assent to Ghorepani (9,365 ft.). It only took us about 2 hours to get to Ghorepani, but we decided to stay there anyway. We had heard that the sunrise over the mountains seen from Poon Hill, above Ghorepani, was incredible. For this reason we decided to wait until the following day, after we had seen the sunrise, to move on. There was a festival going on in Ghorepani. Music, dancing, games (like archery and basketball) were played. It was a lot of fun. That night is was very cold in the guesthouse -- we were forced to snuggle.
Friday, February 23rd, we got up at 5:00 A.M. to climb Poon Hill and see the sunrise (or so we thought). After our tiring assent to the summit (10,475 ft.), we were disappointed to find the entire view obscured by clouds. We waited it out as long as we could, it was freezing, and after not seeing much at all we started down, more than a little disappointed. About half way down Poon Hill, we noticed it was starting to clear up and we could see some of the mountains. We quickly scrambled back up the hill and were amazed to find a panoramic view of the Annapurna Himalaya Mountain Peaks, including the massive Dhaulagiri (26,790 ft.). It really felt like you were right in the heart of the mountains. Amazing!
Saturday, February 24th, day 238 of our adventure, we trekked from Ghorepani to Ghandruk. This would end up being our toughest day, even though a big part of the trek is downhill. The trek provided views similar to Poon Hill, went through Deorali (10,100 ft.), where we picked up another rare find, Banthanti (8,720 ft.), Tadapani (8,840 ft.), into Ghandruk (6,750 ft.) took about 9 hours. We finally reached Ghandruk at around 6:00 p.m. and crashed at the first place we saw -- The Shangri-La Guesthouse.
Sunday, February 25th, we finshed our trek with a 6 hour jaunt to Naya Pul. Along the way we passed through the villages of Kimche, Shaule Bazaar and Birethanti. Even though this stretch was almost all down hill it was still tough. Going staight down the huge stone steps is very jarring on the knees and legs. We would end up being sore for days, but it was well worth the pain.
From Naya Pul we grabbed a ride back to Pokhara with a couple of German guys who we had seen along the trail over the past 3 days. We crashed for the night in Pokhara at The Ghorkali Dee Guesthouse.
Monday, February 26th, day 239 of our adventure, we got up early and took a bus from Pokhara back to Kathmandu -- 8 hours.
All together, our accomodations, transportation and food came to $180 for the 7 nights and 8 days we were away from Kathmandu. This is far cheaper than the two quotes we had gotten from different travel agencies who told us we needed a guide and a porter -- one quoted $25 per day for each of us, and one quoted $40 per day for each of us, and this was for only 4 nights and five days. If you want to save some cash pass on the guide and the porters.
Once we arrived back in Kathmandu we picked up our Indian visas (from the bastards at Nightingale Travelers' Service -- the only service they provide is ripping you off) and checked back into The Poon Hill Guesthouse and got cleaned up with a long, hot shower. After a nice dinner on the roof deck of Brezel Restaurant we crashed for night.
Tuesday, February 27th, day 240 we wandered the streets of Kathmandu. Along the way, we had a Nepali Jeweler hand make us a pair of amazing gold medallions. We also bought a one way ticket to the Indian border for 320 Rs each. We leave for India tommorrow at 7:30 P.M..
Day 241 of Lisa and Joel's Excellent Adventure, Wednesday, February 28th, after just hanging out most of the day, we took a taxi to the Central Bus Station. We arrived at the bus station at 6:45 P.M.. Our bus was scheduled to depart at 7:30 P.M.. Finding our bus proved to be a very difficult task. We were dumped off within a massive maze of buses. Eventually we figured out it was necessary to push our way to the front of a check in counter, reserve our seats, and then work our way back through the mass of mechanical and human chaos to the correct bus.
There proved to be no reason to panic, as the 7:30 P.M. scheduled departure time never developed. We finally began to crawl out of the bus station parking lot, into the chaotic streets of Kathmandu at 8:30 P.M..
The ride from Kathmandu to the Nepali/Indian border took 10 hours – we arrived at 6:30 A.M., Thursday, March 1st, Day 242 of our adventure. When we bought our bus ticket to the border we were told that on the Nepali side of the border rests the town of Sonauli and that the first town on the Indian side would be Nautanwa. Actually, this is not true. The town on the Nepali side is officially known as Bhairawa and Sonauli, officially, is an Indian city. What’s happened is that Sonauli has grown into a conglomerate of moneychangers, shabby guesthouses, rickshaw stands and a motley crue of scam artists who try to capitalize on the movement of physical and human cargo across the busiest land border crossing between Nepal and India. Everyone just calls the entire mess, which straddles the border, Sonauli – Bhairwa has been swallowed up. There is a town called Nautawa about 5km down the road into India, but it has no bearing on the land border-crossing situation.
To a great extent, what has facilitated the growth of Sonauli is the fact that both Nepali and Indian people can move freely across the land border. At the time we arrived, a huge mass of people, cars, rickshaws, horse drawn wagons and any other contraption or creature that could walk, crawl or roll, were all fighting their respective ways back and forth across the border. It was a mess.
As soon as we got off the bus, touts attacked us -- “Rickshaw!”, “Taxi!”, “Money Change!”, “Guesthouse!”. Once we finally collected our gear we jumped on a rickshaw to escape the “vultures” and crossed the border into India.