From Bangalore's Pandora to Kathmandu's Warm Welcome: Our Nepal Adventure Begins

February 22, 2024

So, while this starts the section of our blog about Nepal, we would be remis if we didn't mention the otherworldly experience we had on our way here at the Bangalore airport.  It was something out of Pandora, practically.  The hanging trees, the fountain, the lounge that didn't accept Priority Pass but that we paid for anyway (and was totally worth it for the decor).

We arrived to Kathmandu airport at about 9:15pm after a slight departure delay of about half hour.  You can get a visa on arrival here, but it helps to complete the online information form first (which you can do within 21 days of your arrival) so that you don't have to bring passport photos.  

We're planning on staying in an Airbnb and we secured it through the whole two weeks we're here so that we can leave one of our bags and just travel with our backpacks when we go to Chitwan and Pokhara.  Since we were arriving in the dark, our host gave us their telephone number to give to the taxi driver and they guided him to the flat.  Stephen had to work, so we got everything arranged quickly with our host and Stephen got set up... except we noticed that we couldn't turn on any lights in the bedrooms or the kitchen although the lights in the hallway and the living room worked.  There was wifi but none of the outlets seemed to have power either.  We messaged our hosts, and they said they had emergency power from batteries but that there was a power outage in the area from recent rain and so only these few "essentials"  were available (luckily for Stephen, that included wifi).  We were a little pissed at our host for not mentioning this when we arrived, but we figured we'd deal with it the next morning.

Discovering Kathmandu: Chronicles of Outages, Heritage Trails, and Gastronomic Feasts

February 23, 2024

We woke up this morning with our hopes dashed that electricity would have been restored.  Stephen took matters into his own hands to figure out how extensive the outage was and if we had any other options because, while having wifi was nice, that wasn't going to be helpful at a point if we couldn't charge our devices.  As Stephen was walking around the neighborhood, it appeared that the outage seemed to be limited to two blocks or so around our flat.  There was a Marriott Fairfield property about a 15 minute walk from our flat, so Stephen went there to see if they had power (they did).  He reserved a room and then came back to the flat.  Wouldn't you know it, as soon as he got back, the power came on.  We canceled our reservation at the Marriott, and figured we'd put our laundry in the washer so we could get that done before heading out.  We start the machine (which was on the roof), headed back to the apartment to wait, and the power goes out again.  At this point Eli sheepishly calls the hotel back to say we'll need that reservation after all, and we decide we'll get our clothes out of the machine and vacate the Airbnb for the hotel, dealing with the rigamarole of asking for a refund later.

We got to the hotel, organized our laundry to send out (since it was a US hotel chain it was way more expensive) and then headed out to salvage some of the day.  We started with self guided walking tour from the Lonely Planet guide that took us from Thamel, the tourist/backpacker neighborhood we're staying in, to Durbar Square, seeing sights along the way.  There are a number of Durbar (or palace) squares that are also UNESCO World Heritage sites in different cities in Nepal as other cities has served as regional capitals and national capitals in the past.  Tourists have to pay a "passage" fee to enter the area (although we guess it's mostly just tourists that look foreign vs. actually being foreign).  You get a paper ticket to hang around your neck and it includes entry to the historic palace as well.

The first thing we remarked on was the fact that most of the temples are Hindu, not Buddhist.  In fact, contrary to our belief before we got here, Nepal is actually mostly Hindu with a sizeable Buddhist minority.  We always thought based on movies, all the prayer flags, and given that the birthplace of Buddha was in Nepal that it was mostly a Buddhist country.  It was interesting to see these Hindu shrines in a very different architectural style (looking far more east Asian and almost pagoda like)  from those in India.  The predominant language here is in the same language family as Hindi, so "namaste" and "danyavad"  work here too.  The other thing to note is how much damage is still unrepaired from the 2015 earthquake.  We thought about how quickly the world worked to repair Notre Dame, and how they're still working here brick by brick 9 years later.

In the end, we were able to negotiate a settlement with our Airbnb hosts, and we'll be getting back about 3/4 of our costs for the flat.  They were pretty cool about the whole thing. 

For dinner we decided to heat to Utse for Tibetan hot pot, as it was a cold evening and we thought the hotpot would help warm us up.  The broth was flavorful and not spicy; it was filled with all kinds of veggies and meat.  We also got some of the best momos (think like Japanese gyoza) we've had so far.   

Day Tripping to Nagarkot and Bhaktapur: Himalayan Vistas and Heritage Sites

February 24, 2024

Today we hired a car through the hotel for a half-day to go to Nagarkot and Bhaktapur, which are both to the east of Kathmandu and pretty easy to do as a day trip.

Nagarkot is a hilltop "resort" area that has views of the Himalayas that you can't get from down in the valley of Kathmandu.  You can stay in one of the peaceful resorts up here for a few days, or you can just come for an hour or so for a coffee and view of the mountains in the distance.  Our driver recommended the Club Himalaya as a place to have a coffee and relax.  They have a very well appointed terrace with a nice view of the mountains.  There are quite a few peaks besides Mt. Everest (which was shrouded by misty clouds the day we were there), worth noting for their height.  It was hard to understand the scale of how high they actually were given the distance and the density of high peaks in the Himalaya mountain range. Everything there is tall and jam packed.  It's one thing to appreciate the height of  a volcano like Cotopaxi which rises up from the flat lands below it to understanding that these peaks are almost 7,000 feet higher than that but compared to each other there's little difference.

Next we went to Bhaktapur, which is also known for its Durbar square and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Same rule applies for tourists to visit this area vs. locals as in Kathmandu;  you have to pay an entry fee that is good for the whole day in order to be in the area.  There were a number of tour guides milling about and since we had toured ourselves in Kathmandu, we decided we'd go with a guide for this one... It was only $7.50 for an hour and a half (although that included stops at a Thangka painting shop and at a sonic bowl shop, which were interesting and not high pressure sales, luckily).

The buildings in this square are more diverse in style from those in Kathmandu, incorporating stone and brick and North Indian styles in addition to the more East Asian "pagoda" styles.  One of the interesting traditions shared in both Kathmandu and Bhaktapur is the crowning of the Kumari, or young girl goddess.  She is selected in childhood and revered as a goddess until her first menstrual cycle, at which point she is retired (with a pension). She presides over many ritual functions during holidays, etc.   In Kathmandu, she lives in a palace while in Bhaktapur she gets to live with her family, only coming to the square to perform the important rituals.  Our last stop before leaving was a temple that is known for having carvings of all sorts of animals (and humans) mating.

Stephen had to work so just ordered in food and Eli ventured out a bit to check out the local tourist party scene (which was pretty tame).

Unveiling Kathmandu's Charms: Monkey Temple, Royal Palace, and Historical Insights

February 25, 2024

We decided to keep it simple today as Stephen worked late the night before and would have to work again tonight.  We headed to Swoyambhu Mahachaitya (aka the monkey temple).  This is a Buddhist stupa set high up a hill overlooking the valley (we got pictures of it from our rooftop lunch the day we were in Kathmandu's Durbar Square).  It is a big pilgrimage site, so Buddhists from all over Nepal and Asia come here to pray.  We also learned that the eyes and nose on all the stupas in Nepal symbolize unity (the nose is in the shape of the Nepali numeral for 1), and the eyes for the all-seeing eyes of Buddha.  The monkeys had free reign over the whole area and were sort of cute and scary at the same time.

On our way back, we stopped to see the Royal Palace, based on the recommendation of one of the guest service managers at the hotel.  She said it was important to see "how the kings lived."  Nepal officially abolished the monarchy here in 2008, but in the 1990's the king and queen were murdered and there was a brief period of chaos under a republican system.  The royal family was brought back to rule as a constitutional monarchy until the final abolishment in 2008.  

The palace was built in the midcentury modern style and replaced the palace at Durbar Square.  We couldn't take pictures inside, but all you have to do is imagine faded Nixonian White House and you'll get the picture.  With that said, to our eyes, the palace looked quite dilapidated as far as palaces go.  We could imagine, though, to a Nepali, that this would have been grandeur beyond belief... a room for practically every small task or need.  

For dinner, we headed to another Tibetan restaurant, but this time not for soup.  The garden setting at Denchenling was beautiful, and the food was interesting and tasty.  The stuffed pastry was like a gyoza empanada filled with ginger/scallion/garlic/chicken, and Eli's buffalo meatballs with those fluffy dumplings were the best by far.

Chitwan Chronicles: Bus Rides, Birdwatching, and Tharu Culture Experience

February 26, 2024

We woke up early to catch the tourist bus to Chitwan.  There is a whole line of buses at that hour of the morning on the edge of Thamel waiting to go to locations far flung (and the buses are not just for tourists but for locals too).  The trip took about 6 hours on a road that they were doing construction on most of the way.  This is also mostly the road to Pokhara, so we're glad we'll be flying back from Pokhara to Kathmandu.  It does look like their building a tunnel to get you through the worst section of switchbacks near Kathmandu city.

We arrived at about 1:30 and had a brief rest before meeting our guides for the next 3 days.  We booked our adventures through United Jungle Guide Service, which is a local guide co-op and recommended by Lonely Planet.  Today we're doing a 2 hour birdwatching walk and then a dinner and dance show.  We got to see some interesting birds through our binoculars, but it was hard to get pictures from so far.  The dinner and dance show are representative of the Tharu culture, which is the local group that has a unique language (although in the same language family) from Nepali and have chosen to keep many of the traditional practices of their group like tattooing and home construction, etc.  The dances were all done by women, with the men drumming.  The sticks represent the historical role of defense against the dangerous animals in the area.  The dinner served was quite good with duck and river fish.. spicy and flavorful but not too hot.  They do a traditional rice alcohol that Stephen tasted and said it was pretty mild.  Our guide said that they water it down for the tourists.

The hotel we're staying at is hosting a trade group meeting tonight and there is something going on in the courtyard.  Luckily it was over by 10, so we got some sleep.

Exploring Chitwan's Wilderness: Canoe Rides, Rhino Sightings, Funny-looking Crocodiles, and Tiger Tales

February 27, 2024

Today was our half-day canoe and trek into Chitwan.  We enjoy doing walking safaris, and here they are pretty easy to do.  We started with a one hour canoe ride down the river, seeing crocodiles and birds. Then we did a 3 hour hike back to our starting location.  We had a couple of encounters with rhinos, at one point we were about 50 feet away from a relaxing one.  Later on our guide heard movement in the grass and we moved toward it.  It was another group of 3 rhinos, but they were pretty obscured by the tall grass (grass is is above your head height vs. waist height in the savannahs of Africa).  The guide said they also thought a tiger was present based on other movement nearby and smell, but we never found it.  Wildlife viewing here is complicated by the dense bush of the forest here (as was true in India as well).  As always, we take it as a gift for what we can see knowing that it's all chance and luck.  Our impression is, though, that tiger spotting is tough unless you see it just happening to cross the road in front of you.

The hotel is hosting a wedding tonight, and so we got to see that.  They also had a dance performance by another Tharu group, this one all men.  So apparently men dance too.

Wilderness Expedition: Jeep Safari Adventures in Chitwan's Diverse Ecosystems

February 28, 2024

Today we're going on a 5 hour jeep drive into the forest.  We are with another couple from the US.... 2 women who just recently got together so one is joining the other on her digital nomad adventure for a while.  One had been to many of the places we had in her almost two years of being a nomad, but she's getting ready to settle down again from her adventure.  Being on a jeep lets you cover more area, and we got to see all kinds of different ecosystems of the park including forest, grassland, marshland, and river.  We had lots of animal sightings but alas no rhinos and not tigers today either.  We did encounter a walking safari group who had said they had seen a tiger and leopard up the road a bit and we searched diligently, but like we said before, unless it's crossing the road in front of you, you're unlikely to spot it.

Journey to Lumbini: Exploring the Birthplace of Buddhism

February 29, 2024

We broke our cardinal rule for Lumbini and scheduled ourself to tour the site of the Buddha's birth on the same day of our arrival.  The road to Lumbini from Chitwan is under construction, so it's mostly dirt road with small patches of pavement that haven't yet been removed for repaving.  What should normally take 2.5 hours is taking 5 hours these days, so we decided to leave at 6:30 to make sure we had enough time in the afternoon to check out all of Lumbini.  We're taking a private car as there are no longer any tourist class buses that are plying the route due to the construction.  There are no flights from Chitwan to Lumbini but we could have first gone to Pokhara by plane and then by plane to Lumbini from there, even though it's out of the way.  We would recommend it instead of what we did, though.  In the end, we made it in about 6.5 hours and have enough time to check out the "EPCOT Center of Buddhism."

In addition to the main shrine to Buddha's birthplace, many countries with sizeable (and not so sizeable) Buddhist populations have erected pilgrimage and monastic centers and shrines of their own, all in their own local architectural style.  That's what gives the place the aura of EPCOT.  The grounds of the park are very spread out, so it helps to rent an electric tuktuk to get around.  It's about $7.50 for 3 hours of touring to see all the pavilions and the main relic sites around the birthplace.  As we traveled around we made many connections about how the Buddha is represented here in similar ways to the way Jesus is presented in churches.  It was especially notable in the temples that had scenes of the life of the Buddha painted on the walls in the same way stained glass was used in medieval churches.  The Buddha would have likely hated all of this pomp, but it's interesting to see, none the less.

The main sites of pilgrimage are inside and around the Maya Devi temple.  This includes the sacred Bodhi tree, pond, Asoka pillar, and stone marker.  There were a bunch of monks milling about under the tree not particularly looking like they were meditating or doing much monk-like.

The whole park, like many things in Nepal, has a very unfinished feel to it.  Some buildings, even recently built, look like they have not been taken care of well.  Many of the pavilions are dependent on donations from their home countries for upkeep, so through the pandemic, we assume funds may have dried up.  The Vietnam pavilion was completely closed, and the France pavilion had this gold statue standing on a half-completed base that was supposed to be a lotus flower.  Still, we were very glad we came, if just to get a glimpse into the birthplace of one of the major religions of the world.

Pokhara: From Himalayan Views to Vibrant Lakeside Vibes

March 1, 2024

We chose to fly from Lumbini to Pokhara, although with the flight delay it only ended up being about an hour shorter.  Still, it was preferable to wait in the gate area that stuck in traffic on a bumpy road.  We got some great photos of the Himalayas from the plane.  When we landed, though, the area was blanketed in some low clouds.  We got checked into our Airbnb and then decided to head down to the lake.  The weather report was threatening rain for the next two days so we thought it might be our only time besides Monday to get out a bit.  We rented a rowboat (which came with a rower) for an hour and cruised around the lake, circling the Tal Barahi Temple.  

For dinner, we went to Fresh Elements and had what was by far the best European/American style meal we've had in quite a while.  Eli had the Chicken Milanese and Stephen the Rosemary Chicken.  We got out of there at under $40 including drinks and dessert, what would have been a $100 meal back home.

Pokhara, in addition to the beautiful lake, is also known as the launching pad for treks up into the mountains.  Treks go anywhere from 3 days to 21 days with a variety of different skill levels required, but with Stephen's work schedule, we couldn't really do it (and honestly, Stephen was a bit concerned about the endurance required).  They have lots of other outdoor activities like paragliding, ziplining, ultralight flying, etc. so hopefully the weather will hold out and we'll get to do some of that.

The town, like a lot of Nepal, was overrun with hippies in the 1960s and 1970s.  That, along with being the launching pad for treks means there is quite a tourist infrastructure here, and a particular kind of infrastructure here, for good and bad.  Lots of multicuisine restaurants, stores carrying name-brand hiking gear, and every third building along the main commercial strip near the lake is a bar with live music nightly.  Our Airbnb is a block from there as we have a view of the lake from our flat, but that means we have the music going until 2 in the morning.  Earplugs helped but not quite enough.  

Kayaking Serenity and Sacred Caves in Pokhara

March 2, 2024

We woke up and since it was overcast but not raining, we decided we'd head back out to the lake for a couple hours of kayaking.  It was relaxing being on the water and it was easy paddling as there is no current and wasn't much wind.

Since the weather was holding but we weren't sure for how long, we decided we'd head to Devi's Falls and the Gupteshwor Mahadev Cave.  Devi's Falls, during and after the monsoon, has quite a flow of water.  These days, it's a bit more than a good flow, but nothing massive.  It's also known as Davis falls (or more infamously) since a Mrs. Davis of Swedish descent, died bathing at the falls.  Eli was hoping it was not a family curse.  The water drops from the falls into a deep chasm that is deep enough that you can't see where the water lands from above.

That's where Gupteshwor Mahadev Cave comes in.  The cave is a sacred Hindu site because there is a stalagmite in the shape of a big Shiva lingam (basically a phallic shaped protrusion) was discovered there.  They added some other carving around it and now it's quite the big deal as a shrine.  We were there at 11:30 and so it was quite crowded with the faithful needing to squeeze in their visit before the gods took their rest at 12:00.  If you want a less crowded visit, keep it between 12pm and 4pm.  Many people took off their shoes to enter the cave as they would in a temple, but we thought better of that and kept ours on; it was quite wet in the cave (hence the stalactites and stalagmites).  As we were descending, we heard a man chanting very loudly all the way down, "Ohm, nama shivaya."  Apparently this is quite an important Shiva shrine.

The other part of the cave a little deeper down, though, is where all the water from Devi's Falls goes to.  The vertical crack in the cave wall was made from flowing water from the falls.  Meanwhile, we are probably about 50 meters under the ground level at this point.

We headed back to town to eat lunch at Hot Sandwich Corner and Cheese Shop.  It's a total hole-in-the-wall, but makes an awesome toasted sandwich.

When we came back from lunch, the power was partially out at our Airbnb due to a downed wire from some tree trimming.  Same story as in Kathmandu, but there was more here that was working on battery.  At least we had outlets that were working to charge our devices.  We talked to our Airbnb hosts and they were very generous in offering to take care of reserving a hotel for us outside of the outage zone for Stephen to work from if necessary.  We rested awhile and then headed to dinner was at Aozora restaurant for Japanese katsu curry (they have udon and sushi too).  By the time 6:00 rolled around, the power was back on just in time for Stephen to start working.  Then it started to rain.  Hopefully it will be quick (and not knock the power out again). 

March 3, 2024

Since the rain was on and off throughout the day today, so we stayed in mostly, just venturing out for food.  Hopefully the weather will be nice tomorrow as it is our last day.

Capturing Dawn: Sarangkot View Point for Himalayan Splendor

March 4, 2024

Since the weather report said that today would be clear, we crossed our fingers and woke up at 5:00 to take a cab at 5:30 up to the Sarangkot View Point to catch the sunrise on the Himalayas.  This viewpoint is supposed to have great lighting during sunrise and sunset.  It did, but not all of it was captured in our photos.  It takes about a half hour in the cab up to the top and then another 15 minutes up some stairs.  You don't really need to be there before the exact sunrise time as the magic happens a bit after the official sunrise marker.   We could have probably started about 15-20 minutes later and we would have caught the most important stuff.  After viewing and taking photos, we were pretty happy with what we saw and decided to head back and rest; Stephen worked until 3 and then had to get up at 5 to make the sunrise.  We'll have to try ultralight flying another time.

Dinner was at Moondance.  Eli's fried trout was excellent, while Stephen's mixed grill was just so-so.  

Journey's End: Reflecting on Nepal's Human and Scenic Beauty from Kathmandu

March 5, 2024

We're heading back to Kathmandu today, the clearest day we've had so far in Pokhara.  Clear enough, in fact, that we marveled at the view from the airport of the Himalayas beyond that we didn't get to see on our arrival as it was overcast.  We now know why they situated the new airport here (just open a few months).  We also got quite a view of the mountains in our short flight between Pokhara and Kathmandu.

We arrived just before lunchtime, so got situated in the hotel and headed just around the corner to the Garden of Dreams and Kaiser Cafe to have lunch.  It is a neoclassical garden (more like a yard for a nice house), built in the late 19th century by a German aristocrat and restored by the Austrian government about 10 years ago.  It was small but cute, and a nice relaxing meal of garden fare.

Since we were trying to avoid having to take more cash out of the ATM before leaving, and feeling like we hadn't really had a true Nepali food experience, we decided to go to Bhojan Griha, which is a typical Thakali kitchen in an old mansion, and they have a dance and music performance along with dinner.  The music and dancing felt more "folksy" than the style we saw in India, but it definitely incorporated many hand positions and movements that were clearly acting out something in a way that was reminiscent of hula.

One of the musicians who played a bowed string instrument came over to us and asked us to try it out.  He makes the instruments himself (we have a picture below) and asked if we wanted to purchase one (could he tell something about our proclivities?.... related to musical instrument collecting... get your mind out of the gutter).  We declined, though.

The food was a mix of tastes more like those of the Tibetan restaurants we've been to mixed with more Indian influenced dishes.  If there were one through line, it would be that the food here is much less "saucy" than in India.  Many of the meat dishes are more "dry" spiced or marinated.

As we end our Nepal adventure, we've enjoyed ourselves a lot, from the friendly people, to the unique cultural mix, to the gorgeous mountains (even if we didn't make it on a trek).