Holy hand sanitizer! We're in Nepal. What a stark contrast this place is compared to Abu Dhabi. I've been in third-world countries several times before but the state of this country was shocking. Our expectation was that Nepal would be this untouched, pristine, Sacred and spiritual place. The river was black and filled with garbage. The streets were filled with so much garbage it looked like a city built on top of a landfill. There was so much dirt and debris in the air that many people wear surgical masks when walking outside.
Darren and I believe that Nepal has the most adorable children in the world but it's upsetting to see how filthy they are. I read in the local paper, "The Himalayan" that 6.5 million people in Nepal still do not have access to clean running water and 11 million people do not have toilets and still defecate in the open. This was also shocking to see and we saw a lot of people using the street as a toilet. There seem to be no standards for hygiene, safety, or sanitation here whatsoever. What we discovered is that the people have had no education in these areas but there have been volunteer programs developed where villagers can take classes on health and hygiene. Nepal has been blessed with beautiful landscape and it's a shame to see it destroyed by pollution.
Our trip to Nepal was the only part of our around-the-world adventure that we actually planned in advance. My friend Tricia highly recommended a tour company that she used called "Nature Trail" so I contacted the owner Bishnu and he put together a trekking itinerary just for us. They picked us up and dropped us off at the bus station and airport, booked hotels, and got trekking permits for us. They also helped us book our flight from Nepal to India. We didn't have to plan a thing. They took care of everything for us.
This was our itinerary:
Ghorepani Poon Hill Trekking – 5 days:
Day 01: Fly from Kathmandu to Pokhara. Drive to Nayapul then trek to Ulleri (1960 m.). Overnight stay at tea house.
Day 02: Trek Ulleri to Ghorepani (2750 m.) – 8 hrs. Overnight stay at tea house.
Day 03: Explore the Poon hill (3193m) / back to Ghorepani and trek to Tadapani (2590m) – 7 hrs walk (1190 m.) Overnight stay at tea house.
Day 04: Tadapani to Ghandruk (1940 m.) 4 / 5 hours. Overnight stay at tea house.
Day 05: Ghandruk to Pokhara – 7 / 8 hours walk + 45 minutes drive. Overnight stay in Pokhara hotel.
Day 06: Drive to Kathmandu by Greenline tourist coach. 8 hours
All meals and flights were included, plus we had our own English speaking guide and a porter. We spent a day in Kathmandu before we left for our trek so we got to see some sights before we left. First, we took a rickshaw to Durbar Square. The rickshaw ride was a bit scary since the roads are not paved and there are seemingly no traffic rules. Cars, bikes, motorcycles, cows and pedestrians whiz by in all different directions. Nepal was quite a culture shock for us but we feel like it's preparing us for our trip to India. We like to call it "India lite".
Hanuman-Chola Durbar Square is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has 43 monuments, shrines, museums and temples. Most of them were built between the 12th and 18th centuries, in the pagoda style embellished with intricately carved exteriors. Until the early 20th century the Durbar Square was the King's residence. It is now a living open museum of Nepal.
Our next stop was to Swoyambunath or "Monkey Temple" which it's more commonly referred to. There was what felt like a million steps to the top. The Nepalis really adore their steps. At the top, there were prayer wheels and monks, prayer flags, music and men giving blessings, a panoramic view of Kathmandu, and monkeys everywhere.
Saturday, November 12th-Day 1 of our trek. As I mentioned, Nepal was the only part of our trip that we planned in advance. Nature trail took care of everything except for the only things we can't plan which are the weather and natural disasters. November is supposed to be the best time of year to go trekking in Nepal because of the clear skies and 0.00" of rainfall.
We got up at 5:30 am to go to the airport to catch our flight from Kathmandu to Pokhara. The airport was just one small filthy room with one small and even filthier bathroom (with a woman vomiting). All flights out were delayed because Pokhara airport was closed due to heavy fog. Hundreds of people were crammed into this one room and no flights were leaving. Just the week before 3,500 people were stranded at Mt. Everest base camp due to the fog. It was too dangerous to hike out and the guest houses ran out of food. Helicopters had to fly in to rescue people and violent fights broke out. People paid between $750-$1500 to get on the helicopters. We were starting to become concerned about the fog situation but after 5 memorable hours, we were finally on a tiny prop-plane which still has imprints of my fingernails in the armrest. It was a bumpy ride and a not-so-soft landing. There was so much fog we couldn't see anything out the window. The Himalayas were out there somewhere.
Pokhara airport was just a landing strip and our bags were taken off the plane and put on a cart which was considered "baggage claim". Our guide, Dharma and our porter, Daya had been waiting for us the entire 5 hours. Dharma had a Masters Degree in Education and spoke Nepali, English, Japanese, and Korean. He was sweet, and kind, and had a really great sense of humor. Daya was shy and quiet. He barely spoke to us for the first few days but eventually came out of his shell. He was also very sweet and gentle as we found most Nepali people to be. His caste was Sherpa so that was his name, Daya Sherpa, and it was also his job as was everyone in his family. Every single day the Sherpas carry 20-50 pounds on their backs up and down the steep mountains. Some of them wear only flip-flops and some are little old women. We didn't like the idea of someone carrying our things but it was explained to us that the porters made good money and wouldn't be able to feed their families otherwise. We packed only a few things that we needed into one backpack so he wouldn't have to carry such a heavy load. Daya never took a drink of water or even broke a sweat and he was carrying at least three times the weight of the rest of us. I can't believe I ever thought that living in a 4th-floor apartment was a pain. The only way these people can get what they need is if the porters carry it in for them. There are no roads here so everything must be carried by people or donkeys and the villages are 6-8 hours walk away from each other. Tourists come here to trek for fun but these people do it every day out of necessity.
We drove about 45 minutes to our starting point and began trekking right away. We lost a lot of time and we had to find a tea house (Nepali guest lodge) before it got dark. We found a house that had a room for us. We climbed up a ladder and there was a 5'x7 room built out of plywood with 2 cots. There was an outhouse and they boiled some water so we could take a bucket shower before we went to sleep. At about 5:00 am we awoke suddenly. The house was shaking and I could hear rumbling. It was an earthquake. The house was just a brick shack built on the side of the mountain. I was afraid it crumble and fall right into the river. Darren said it felt like the house was on springs. The roosters were crowing and the cows and goats were all freaking out and making noise. A half-hour later we felt another earthquake. We weren't sure what to think and without a phone, internet or any form of contact with the outside world, we had no way of knowing the extent of the damage. If there is an emergency in this area there are two ways in which people can be brought to the hospital. They can be carried out on a stretcher, which would be 3-5 days depending on where you live, or they have to be rescued by helicopter. We were worried the news of a quake would reach home and people would panic if they didn't hear from us that we were alright but we were five days walk away from a phone or email so there was nothing we could do but hope no one heard about it and continue trekking.
Day 2 we trekked up the mountains for 8 hours. This was a seriously challenging trek today but we wouldn't complain when the porters were carrying bags of flour, gas tanks, live chickens, and mattresses on their backs. There was more fog. We were hiking in the Himalayas and couldn't even see them. All that exhausting work and no reward. Dharma entertained us with songs and taught us to speak some Nepali. Everywhere we went people were so nice and welcoming. Everyone greets each other with, "Namaste" and the little children come flying up the mountain with big smiles, " Namaste! Do you have sweets?!" Life here is as basic as it gets. The children have nothing and yet they seem to be the happiest children in the world.
The next morning we woke up at 4:45 to trek up Poon Hill to watch the sunrise on Annapurna. I look back on this trek and refer to it fondly as, "The Death March". It was freezing cold and we began hiking uphill just 10 minutes after waking. It was pitch black and we were following a line of flashlights. I was suffering from altitude sickness and the cold air was making it worse. I couldn't get air into my lungs and despite the freezing cold, I was drenched in sweat. We hiked uphill for an hour. Steps, steps, and more endless steps and all the time it was like breathing through a straw. My doctor back home had done a trek in Nepal and warned me about this and so she gave me extra Asthma inhalers. She said everyone on her trek was borrowing her inhaler whether they had Asthma or not. Asthma and altitude sickness is not a good mix so I took puffs of my inhaler the whole way and I pushed myself to the top just as the sun came up and there they finally were. The fog had lifted and we were staring at the Himalayas.
We hiked back down, ate breakfast and learned that Dharma, with his Master's Degree had never heard of McDonald's. There is a wonderful innocence about the people here. He had also never even seen the ocean so we gave him and Daya some seashells we collected in South Africa. They didn't even know what seashells were. We had given them to some children one day when we didn't have any candy for them. They were so excited and tried to blow in them like they were horns. Dharma tried to blow in his too. His amazement and appreciation for the little gift was so genuine. In fact, everyone we came across was so genuine and grateful for everything.
We started out again on another 6 hours of trekking. A half-hour into it the fog came back and stayed for the rest of the day. That night was even colder than the last. The teahouses don't have heat and there's no electricity until after 5 pm. Even then, there are rolling blackouts so we were all sitting in one room where they were burning coal for warmth and the power went out so we just sat there in the dark. The food is really basic too. All they really have to offer is fried rice or fried noodles. They have some other stuff on the menu but if you order it they say they don't have it or it will take too long to make.
The next morning Dharma was excitedly knocking on our door. The fog had lifted and the mountains could be seen again. He didn't want us to miss it. We ate breakfast outside overlooking the mountain sunrise. It had been a rough and freezing cold night and there was a woman staying at the tea house who was really sick. There were no pharmacies or doctors and she had to keep trekking despite being miserably ill. I had some cold medicine and lozenges that I gave her and it was like I handed her a million dollars. The people who live here don't have access to the most basic necessities and at home, we can just run across the street to the store and get anything we need. We are so lucky.
We reached our next village, Ghandruk by midday. The teahouse was particularly nice. By this, I mean that the electricity worked and the bathroom was indoors. Since there had been no sun for days, the solar showers could not produce hot water but they were still lukewarm and Dharma made sure to always look after us. He was so intent on making sure that we got the warm shower before the other guests arrived and used it up that he tried to drag Darren into the water with his clothes on! The showers are just a faucet and a drain in the floor next to the toilet and the toilets are usually squat toilets. They don't use toilet paper so you have to carry your own wherever you go. At this teahouse we watched several people brush their teeth in the shower, followed by a woman washing dishes from the dining hall (cold water with no soap) and then another woman brought her little girl into the same shower to urinate. No knowledge of hygiene whatsoever in this part of the world.
That afternoon Dharma took us to the Ghandruk museum. Yay! The museum was basically just a house filled with old Nepali artifacts most of which they still use today. Not much in Nepal has changed in the past 100 years. The museum had some funny diorama style out-of-scale displays with farmers that were five times bigger than the cows. There was a certificate on the wall for "Museumology." I loved it. Dharma then took us to the local monastery and then the Visitors Center. Ghandruk was considered a large village. It had 200 homes, a school, a monastery, and a Visitor Center. The Visitor's Center had information about endangered wildlife, environmental protection, health and hygiene workshops, bridge development and other projects they were trying to undertake in the Annapurna region. Tourism is Nepal's biggest industry and so there was a lot of focus on keeping the Annapurna region clean and safe for visitors. This was really wonderful to see.
We had a really fun day and that night Dharma and Daya finally ate dinner with us. They eat Dal Bhat every day- a traditional Nepali dish of rice and lentils. All of the porters and guides would usually wait to eat until after the tourists had eaten. We asked them why and they said that tourists are most important. Dharma said that to the Nepali people tourists are Gods. Without tourists, these people would have no livelihood. But we insisted that we were just regular people who were just as important as they are and we wanted them to eat with us. So they finally did and Dharma taught us more Nepali. I'm learning to say, "I'm allergic to garlic" in every language! He taught us Nepali trekking songs and we joked around. We learned about their families and traditions. A little girl about the age of two entertained us, with funny faces and dancing around. A tourist had given her an orange and she played with it for hours. She looked out the window and pointed to the mountain and said to us, "Annapurna!" She was a little trekking guide in the making.
It rained really hard all night. So much for clear skies and 0.00" of rainfall in November! The next morning we had a 6-hour trek downhill. It was so slippery Dharma had to hold my hand most of the way. But all of us were slipping and each time we slipped we'd turn it into a dance! Even Daya slipped once but just a tiny bit. He lived his whole life in the mountains and this was like taking a stroll for him. When porters or donkeys pass by everyone must step aside for them since they have to carry the heavy loads. But where there are donkeys there is also plenty of donkey dung so another difficult task is trying not to step in it because it is really slippery and you don't want to fall in it!
We passed a woman who lived in one of the villages which consisted of maybe three homes. She had a festering wound on her foot. She was in the woods and a boulder fell on it. It looked horribly painful and she had no medication or any ability to walk to a doctor. All Dharma had for her was a small bandaid and she was thrilled. Our problems are so silly. We are so lucky.
We were almost out and the path was blocked off so we had to take a detour. We came upon an avalanche and had to climb over the rocks that had fallen above. As we trekked down it got warmer and it became easier to breathe. It was our last day of trekking and the sun finally came out. We finally got to see some views and we sang Nepali trekking songs. Our trek was over in the afternoon and then they drove us to our hotel in Pokhara where we would spend the night. Dharma and Daya were taking the local bus back to Kathmandu that night. They would spend a few days with their families before leaving for a 21 day Everest base camp trek. Darren and I had tickets for a bus the following morning. It would take 8 hours to get back to Kathmandu. We took the world's most amazing hot showers and ate a real meal (with meat!) at the hotel restaurant. They had a performance of traditional Nepali dancing and they were singing Dharma's trekking song! We were so excited that we knew the words.
I woke up in the middle of the night feeling very sick. Maybe the meat was bad or maybe I drank bad water. We had an 8-hour bus ride ahead of us and I was dreading it. We thought about staying another day and seeing if we could get a flight back to Kathmandu but the airports were closed again thanks to the never-ending fog. We managed to make it through fog, rain, freezing cold, mudslides, an avalanche, and an earthquake and then I got sick. I was so nauseous and couldn't eat a thing. The bus was old and rickety. None of the roads were paved and the driver was driving like a lunatic in true Nepali fashion. We stopped for lunch and all I could manage was two forkfuls of rice. At the next stop, I managed to make it out of the bus in time to vomit on the side of the road a few times. Nepal wound up being a spiritual place after all because I started praying to God to just let me die rather than get back on the bus again. And then a miracle happened. A girl came up to me and gave me some anti-nausea medication. Now I had just been given a million dollars.
We made it back to Kathmandu without any further incidents. When we arrived we saw wonderful sweet Dharma had come to meet us. He had already been paid and was no longer our guide but he paid for the cab himself and came to make sure we made it safely back. He took us back to the hotel and was insisting that I let him take me to the private clinic but I was so weak that I couldn't do anything but lie in bed and that's where I stayed for the next 16 hours. While I hibernated, Darren and Dharma went to the pharmacy to get me medicine. We were supposed to meet Bishnu and his wife for dinner but that was unfortunately out of the question. The next morning I was feeling a little better and was able to eat my first bit of food in over a day. We had no clean clothes left and desperately needed to find a laundromat but there was no place that would let us wash our clothes ourselves so we had to drop it off. At this point, I had no clean underwear or clothes left. I'd like to thank my friend Michele O'Brien for the brilliant travel tip: a bathing suit can be worn as underwear. So there I was in Kathmandu wearing a winter coat over a bikini and a pair of Darren's pants which were ridiculously big on me. Only in Kathmandu can a person blend right in wearing an outfit like this. It's is a Mecca for dirty hippies. When we finally got our clothes back they were dirtier than when we brought them in and half of them were missing. We had to go back and recover the rest of our clothes minus some socks and underwear but the majority of it was there although it was all now the same shade of dingy gray.
So despite all of our planning, we didn't have the trip we expected but we challenged ourselves to do something we weren't sure we could do, we learned a lot and pushed ourselves to do things way outside of our comfort zone. We discovered one of the rare places on this planet where people have never heard of McDonald's. We trekked through the magnificent Himalayas and even got to see them from time to time! We met some of the world's most genuinely nice and happiest people, we made new friends and were reminded of how incredibly fortunate we are.
Shuba bihani=Good morning
Shuba Ratri=Good night
Tapai lai kasto chha?= How are you?
Dhanya bad= Thank you
Pheri bhetuela= See you again/goodbye
Tapaiko nam ke ho?= What is your name?
Malai lasun man pardaina= I can't eat garlic