Sorry for the cheezy title, that’s always my second-least favorite part of writing a blog post (after uploading photos). But damn, what a trip I just had! If you’re reading this in Singapore and you haven’t yet been to Nepal, GO! It’s just 4.5 hours away on SilkAir but you couldn’t feel further away if you tried.
The fact that this was one of my all-time great vacations is all the more surprising because the trip got off to a very rocky start. After nine months of planning, my best friend Bridget was all set to fly from Boston to New York, to Doha, to Kathmandu on Qatar Airways. Then the budget sequester happened, and flying in the U.S. somehow got even shittier than it already was.
As luck would have it, mandatory furloughs and intentional delays hit U.S. airports hard just during the week when Bridget had to fly. Her dinky one-hour flight from Boston to New York-JFK got delayed by four hours, causing her to miss her long-haul flight from New York to Doha. Unfortunately the next connecting flight wasn’t for 24 hours, and the next Doha-Kathmandu flight after that was sold out, meaning she wouldn’t reach Kathmandu until Saturday night (when she was originally supposed to arrive on Friday morning). There was a glimmer of hope, though: all the economy seats on a flight that would have gotten in Saturday morning were sold out, but business class seats were still available.
But Qatar Airways refused to let her PAY for an upgrade, threatening to cancel the rest of her ticket if she tried to book a different seat. What airline doesn’t take more money to fill a seat that would otherwise be empty?! She even enlisted the help of American Express Travel, and they, too, were baffled by Qatar Airways’ intransigence. Long story short, due to Qatar’s refusal to book her on an earlier flight THAT HAD SEATS AVAILABLE, Bridget would not have arrived in Nepal until the trek had already started. Exhausted and dreading jet lag on top of 3 straight days of travel, she opted to not make the trip, to both of our great disappointment.
A little over a year ago I wrote a review of flights we took on Qatar Airways, and it’s among my most popular posts. In light of the appallingly terrible customer service that Bridget experienced, I will probably go out of my way to NOT fly them again.
So that’s how the trip began: I woke up for an early flight to Kathmandu just learning the news that I’d be going to Nepal by myself. For months I’d looked forward to spending 10 days catching up with my best friend who lives on the other side of the world, now suddenly I was going to an unfamiliar, possibly dangerous place on my own. I was not in the best frame of mind as I boarded the flight, though my Mom tried to cheer me up by reminding me that I’d still get great exercise on the trek. Yes, I was looking forward to the hiking, but I wasn’t thrilled about spending 10 nights by myself in hotel rooms, and was quite nervous about making friends with people who would already know each other. As I boarded the plane, I repeated what would become my mantra for the trip, “It’s an adventure!”
My flight arrived on time and, due to both sitting near the front and the kiasu tendencies I’ve absorbed during my time in Singapore, I was one of the first people through customs. To my great relief the tour operator, Earthbound Expeditions, was waiting for me right by the curb with a big, easily identifiable sign. Although the 10-day Trek and Tour with Yoga that Bridget and I had booked (through one of my deals at work!) included accommodation in a 3-star hotel (Thamel Eco Resort, which I later saw and was actually quite nice), we’d gone for the 5-star upgraded option and had booked Dwarika’s Hotel.
Dwarika’s was AMAZING; it’s one of the most unique and charming hotels I’ve ever stayed in. While I was not a huge fan of Kathmandu — it’s dusty, chaotic, hard to navigate, sidewalk-less in many places, and again, CHAOTIC — Dwarika’s is truly a tranquil oasis (clichéd as it sounds) once you walk through its gorgeous wooden doors.
The hotel is constructed from reclaimed wood and old windows taken from old buildings and palaces. Everywhere you turn there are fountains, and gorgeous carved beams, and charming little rhinoceros statues, and Buddhas. Even the doorknobs were unique:
The hotel is also home to some of the top-rated restaurants in the city, and after a long morning flight I was more than happy to lunch on a local dish that I’d been greatly anticipating — Momos.
As I may have mentioned before, I’m something of a dumpling fanatic. Stuffed with curried vegetables and paneer, momos totally hit the spot. Throughout my trip I probably ate momos about 10 times (always vegetarian — I didn’t eat meat the entire time I was in Nepal), and I think they were the best at Dwarika’s, but they were never really bad anywhere, even at 10,000 feet.
I’m going to cover the 5-day trek (the highlight of the trip) in a separate post, but a few other thoughts before I go:
-Kathmandu is unlike any other city I’ve ever visited. The roads are mostly dirt, it’s extremely hilly, and there aren’t a whole lot of sidewalks. There’s not really a CBD, and even what seemed to be the fancy part of town evoked “faded grandeur” and felt like it probably saw its best days about 50 years ago. Because it’s in a valley the air is incredibly polluted, and since most of the roads are dirt and the streets are filled with scooters there are all sorts of crazy particles in the air. It’s the first time I’ve ever walked around wearing a face mask, and even so I came home with a cold and stuffy nose.
All that said, I did enjoy walking through the Old Town, which features some really stunning buildings that are, like, 500 years old. At one point we came across a little Buddha statue in front of an electronics store/dentist’s office that Lonely Planet informed us dates back to the 5th century. It’s crazy how the old and new blend into each other there.
Also, one of the few impressions I had of Kathmandu before arriving came from the totally bizarre Eddie Murphy movie The Golden Child. To my great chagrin, the airport is actually pretty much exactly still like this (and there are still cows everywhere).
-We took a bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara at the start of the trip. As the crow flies the distance between them is only about 90 miles, but the “highway” (emphasis on the height, not width of the main road) distance is about 125 miles. In the U.S. that’s, what? Like 2 hours? The trip took us 7 hours. Yes, we stopped twice for snacks and bathrooms breaks, but mostly that time was down to the windiest, gnarliest, freaking scariest roads I have ever seen. Granted, they were actually the worst (in terms of poor quality and scary-ass cliffs) in the first 90 minutes getting out of Kathmandu, but I definitely spent good chunks of the trip doing yoga breathing and listening to the Grateful Dead (i.e. what I normally do during turbulence on airplanes to calm myself down). In addition to the roads themselves, I also worried about the drivers, as the road could barely fit two lanes yet cars, trucks and buses seemed to enjoy overtaking each other with reckless abandon, even on blind curves.
When we got to Pokhara (an absolutely gorgeous lakeside town that I will also write about in a future post), I totally almost kissed the ground when I got off the bus. Our guide collected tips for the driver, and tried to tell me that I’d put too much cash in.
“I’m happy to do it because he got me here alive,” I replied. This was the first – but not the last – time that our guide would shake his head at me for being crazy. Whatever, I don’t regret it.
Suffice to say, when it was time to return to Kathmandu after the trek and two days in Pokhara, I actually let myself get talked into flying, despite the fact that I’m a nervous flyer, am TERRIFIED of small planes, and was particularly petrified of a) the general safety record of Nepali airlines and b) flying over the world’s highest mountains. The following reasons swayed me, though:
- As one of my friends pointed out, there’s a lot less time for something to go wrong during a 25-minute flight than during a 7-hour bus ride.
- I met a girl at a bar in Pokhara who’d arrived by public bus, and she actually SAW a bus in front of her drive off a cliff. Shockingly, she said the people on her bus barely reacted and they kept on driving.
- This girl also quoted a statistic to me (who knows if it’s accurate) that on average at least one bus a month drives of a cliff. It’s, like, expected. I’m unclear whether people survive these crashes or not.
- Our bus on the way in was not very well air-conditioned. By the end of the trip I had perspired even more from the heat than from my frayed nerves.
With all of this being said, I did feel like our driver drove extremely carefully, and throughout the trip felt like our safety and comfort was the top priority. Yes the roads are scary, but Nepalis seem to know what they’re doing on them. Like I said, my mantra for the trip was “It’s an adventure.”