One day in Nepal is the equivalent of 3 days elsewhere. Why do I say this? Because every day that I’ve spend in the mountainous Himalayan country, my senses were overwhelmed by the experiences that filled my eyes, nose, and taste buds with awe; or new knowledge that pulled me into the unique history and culture of Nepal with a thirst for more.
Here is the story of my journey in Nepal, the people I’ve encountered, and the social problems I’ve witnessed and pondered over.
Day 1: To Kathmandu
To be honest, I had no idea what to expect from Nepal; I don’t usually have any expectations for new places of travel because I feel that it leaves my mind free of assumptions and open to everything the said place has to offer. BUT I really was not expecting the capital of the country to be the view I saw from my air plane window. I became even more shocked as I witnessed the simplicity of the airport (not to mention the extreme slow service and lack of professionalism), the amount of dust that blew into my eyes and nose as I walked on the broken disconnected sidewalks, the abandoned lakes in the city rift with pollution, the random cows and other animals that strolled the streets, the list goes on. So this is what the infamous Kathmandu is like, I thought, as I rolled back my frozen stiff body (it can be surprising how cold the weather in Nepal can get at night in a room with no heat) onto the bunk beds of Thamel Hostel, not looking forward to the 6 a.m. wake up tomorrow to catch the bus to Pokhara- at least I will be getting out of this cramped and polluted city.
Day 2: Pokhara, Breath of Fresh Air
Pictures for comparison purposes of the different vibes that the two major Nepali city holds. After an almost 10 hour bus ride (that could have been cut short by more than half if the roads were better) crossing through towns and looping around mountains, I was exhausted and almost bumped out of my seat a dozen times. Along the way, we encountered some Chinese funded construction projects; I asked the Indian friends we made along the way about the project, and apparently China is funding the construction of underground paths for cars to alleviate the congestion of the capital city- more on this topic later.
After the rough journey, Pokhara, needless to say a breath of fresh air. We came just in time for the Pokhara Street Festival that’s held every year during the holiday season, and the streets, closed off for the event, were booming with festivities. After a 2 hour walk around town with our heavy backpacks, we finally settled on a newly opened hostel near the rural areas of Pokhara away from the city noise. The rest of the day passed fast with dinner by a lakeside restaurant, a stroll back to town to book the 4 day hiking trip starting tomorrow, and my first hot shower after the plane ride that knocked me out into a shower coma for the night- I think I’m starting to like Nepal.
Day 3: 3000 Steps and Fireside Chats
It was another day where we rose earlier than the sun, and set off to the river to catch a glimpse of the sunrise. After a nice little river boating session, we headed back to the lakeside restaurant for breakfast, and prepared for hiking.
We got picked up by our local guide, and we started off for Nayapul, the usual starting point for the Poon Hill trek. Because our hostel hard to find and because we had to stop to finish up some paperwork for our trekking permits, we were way behind schedule, so…we shamefully took a jeep for part of the trek and ended up right at the bottom of the gruesome 3000 flights of stairs. Our guide wanted to skip even this part, but I was adamant on getting some workout for the day, so he relented.
Huffing and puffing, we conquered the stairs before sunset and arrived at Ulleri, and checked into the Hill Top Guesthouse.
There was no heating in the guesthouse except in the dining area, so that’s where everyone huddled at night when the temperature dropped to freezing. As the rice wine gets flowing, this is where the interesting talks begin. Our group was joined by another trekker, a middle-aged man from the Netherlands, and his Nepali guide whom we called “uncle.”
“Uncle” had poor English, was a bit tipsy, and loved to use the phrase “be honestly” before starting a sentence, which we found hilarious. “Uncle” was around 40 years old, and seemed anxious to retire from his career of first being a porter, then now a guide. He spoke longingly about one of his relatives, also a guide, who fell in love with one of his female clients during a trek, married her and moved to America. This apparently was more common than I expected.
My friend, being a political junkie, immediately began steering the topic towards politics asking “uncle” about his opinions on Chinese investments in Nepal, as can be seen in the road construction projects, and he viewed it in a positive light, as he believes that it is harder for corrupt Nepali officials to squander the money with Chinese oversight.
Somehow the topic changes from politics to the old practice of having “two wives” (though banned, is still not regulated) in Nepal. Our guide shared the story of how he was a neglected child of a man with two wives, and at one point, “uncle” admitted he also had two wives and neglected his children. An awkward silence drifted upon us. It took a while before I understand that the concept of two wives in our conversation didn’t mean that the two wives lived under the same household, but that an wife can be abandoned by her husband as he takes in another wife, without proper divorce papers or financial settlement.
From then on we talked about the treatment of women in Nepal and the topic of rape. My friend was adamant that rape, although rare, had recent precedents in Nepal, while the new Nepali guides (both men) were honestly shocked to hear the news, and claimed to have never heard anything like that happen in their country. As my friend turned to pull up the news article that stated the case of a female trekker being raped and killed in the mountains, our guide turn to explain that things like that never use to happen in Nepal. He blamed the turn of the tides on Western influences. “We Nepali men treat all of our females as sisters, Didī, and all our men as brothers, Bhā’ī. Before the onslaught of popular Western culture, we didn’t even know what rape was.”
Throughout the conversation, “uncle” repeatedly brought up the case of the numerous amount of Tibetan refugees living in Nepal and stated that he could not stand by and do nothing. “They are landless and they have little means to thrive here,” he cried out. Not fully understanding the sensitive political nature of the issue in China, he repeatedly urged my friend and I to “write to our government” and do something about the situation. I chucked on the outside, but felt a sense of helplessness inside to do anything for these people. Nevertheless, we asked for the address of such refugee settlements, and promised each other we’d make a visit there before we left.
Day 4: New Year at Gorephani
I woke up in the freezing cold morning and were handed the bill for our stay; we were shocked to find that the cost of our stay in the double room was the same as the cost for a roll of toilette paper we asked for the night before- $2. Supply and demand up in the mountains must be different I thought, as I went back to the room to stuff the costly roll of toilette paper into my backpack.
After the 3000 steps, it was a fairly easy day for us as we reached Gorephani, about 2,800 m in height and the starting place to go see Poon Hill, at around 2 p.m. We quickly checked into the Nice Viewpoint Lounge, and were promised gorgeous mountain views as we lay on our beds. I nervously asked if there was heat in this guesthouse, and the answer was no. Higher altitudes means even colder temperatures so I had to huddle inside my blanket for most of the afternoon in order to keep warm and keep my creeping cold symptoms from progressing.
I finally rolled out of bed for dinner and dived into the warm embraces of what has become a comfort food up in the mountains- Dal Bhat. Again we sat by the fire, grabbed some drinks and chatted the night away with complete strangers.
“Uncle” was in the same guesthouse as us once more, boasting about how he will stay up till midnight to welcome the New Year, he drunkenly danced around in the common area before passing out on a sofa by the fireside at 7 p.m.
A Chinese women, whom we gave the nickname of “tough mama,” was 52 years-old and was solo-travelling Nepal by her own, accompanied by a younger Chinese women whom she met on the flight. I admired her for the sense of adventure she held onto at her age, for I could never imagine my own mother (around the same age) making the trek up the 3000 steps on her own. “Tough mama” told us about how her daughter, who is currently studying in Germany, does not like to travel to far-out places like she does. She also told us about the amount of solo-travelling Chinese girls she met along the way, and lamented: “Chinese girls are becoming far more capable and adventurous these days that their male counterparts just can’t seem to catch up. No wonder Chinese girls are becoming unwilling to marry.” I couldn’t help but chuckle in agreement as I’ve also encountered quite a few female Chinese solo-travellers along the way, but not a single male counterpart.
We also spoke with a guesthouse worker who was Gurung, an ethnic group in Nepal that has Mongolian ancestry. In a debate of how Mongolians could have reached Nepal back in the days, I realised that Gurungs must be the children remnant settlers in the Genghis Khan era, during the Khan’s rampant conquests in the 13th century- how interesting history is in understanding the present.
2017 ended with me laying in bed before the clock struck midnight, all the while listening to the ruckus that penetrated through the paper-thin wooden floors and walls: the spoiled Australian teen next to us was complaining to his mother about the less than 5-stars experience of the mountain guesthouses; the guys downstairs were enjoying some beers and holding out until the clock struck midnight; meanwhile I tossed and turned between sniffles during what became an almost sleepless night.
Day 5: Poon Hill and Beyond, the Issue of Porter Labour Rights
I did not have to toss and turn in bed for long, as the alarm went off at 5 a.m. and we got up to trek what seemed like another 1500 steps, hoping to reach Poon Hill before sunrise. The journey was not easy, as it was dark, freezing, and we had an empty stomach, but eventually we made it to the top. There was not much to do up there except to enjoy the gorgeous view and take a million pictures, all while trying to look like we’re not freezing to death in the bone-piercing winds.
The rest of the day seemed like a blur as we trekked through flat lands, mountain trails, and jungle trails. After around 10 hours, we had reached the village town Ghandruk, which was much more developed than any of the areas we stayed in, even containing its own Traditional Gurung Museum.
What I did noticed, and continued to see across the trails are porters that are carrying way more loads than the permitted amount of 20–25 kg. Some were even as heavy as 40–50 kg, and that’s equivalent to carrying a full grown adult on your back for hours on end as you hike up the steeply elevated mountains. Our guide explained to me that as mountain people, they were used to these type of work and this often had to carry loads of other materials up in the mountains in their daily lives, but from the struggling expressions on the faces of the scrawny porters overloaded with baggage, I can tell that no matter how much practice you may have had, this is no easy work.
When I asked why this type of overloading is allowed to happen, I was told with a shrug of the shoulder that some tour companies do not properly weight the bags of trekkers to make sure that it stayed within limit and just let it slid for the porters to bare the burden; the porters are fired if they refused. I felt at a loss for with whom I should direct my anger to: at the government for not better regulating the labour sector? At the tour agencies for putting profit over the well-being of their workers? At the individual trekkers who did not care to stay within the allocated weight limits for their ported baggage and who were too cheap to hire multiple porters?
It is an outright labour rights violation, and all of the 3 above parties should bare responsibility. Making an month average income of 10,000 RS (100 USD), porters also normal people who have families to raise and mouths to feed; often, their only way to be promoted in their jobs is to learn English so that they may upgrade to become guides, who do not have to carry bags. For many without the means to do so, they remain porters their entire lives. Whatever the case is, I hope future trekkers do a better job of being responsible travellers, and take into account the consequences of their behaviour, because one person’s weight-free trek comes at the cost of someone else’s bent back.
In doing some research on the issue, I am glad that NGOs like theInternational Porter Protection Group (IPPG) (http://www.ippg.net/) are raising their voices to promote safe work in the Nepali porter industry.
Day 6: Tibetan Settlement Camp
My friend and I finished what was left of our trek, and treated our guide to lunch at a local Chinese restaurant, before heading off to the nearest Tibetan settlement camp, Tashiling. Neither of us had ever been to a refugee, or resettlement, camp so we did not know what to expect, but we were surprised to see the orderliness of the Tashiling Tibetan settlement. A temporary camp was previously set up by the UNHCR on the site in the 60s, but the area now just looks like an arts & craft vending area, with the exception of a museum at the center of the settlement.
I walked into the museum and was immediately bombarded by the pictures and documents on the wall stating the history of oppression and despair that the Tibetans had suffered through under Chinese occupation. I couldn’t help but compare this small museum with the grand museum and propaganda I had seen in Lhasa, Tibet, regarding this same part of history. I have come to understand that whether China has “liberated” or “invaded” Tibet, just depends on who is telling the story- after all, history is written by the victors.
After recovering from the somewhat shocking narrations inside the museum, I ventured into the carpet shop next doors. After purchasing a small hand-woven bag made by a Tibetan boy, I asked the owners of the shop whether the site was visited often, if at all, by Chinese tourists. She responded, “they used to come by on the tour bus, but after an image of a self-immolating (an act of protest against Chinese rule) women was hung on the brick walls on the back of the shop, the Chinese tourists stopped coming. The image was later removed, and the tourists started slowly coming back. When the shop keeper asked my friend and I where we were from, we looked at each other and simultaneously said Hong Kong. I walked outside of the complex and indeed the there was a huge gap on the wall where the old image must have hung.
The atmosphere at the camp was far from lively as there were few visitors around. Many of the shop vendors waved at us, insisting that we come inside. We stepped into the shop of a smiling grandmother and a father holding a small child. Again, the grandmother asked me where I was from, and I decided to test the waters, muttering Beijing. I wasn’t sure if I expected some type of reaction, but the grandmother simply smiled and continued on talking. I walked out of the shop with a small pair of earrings that she gave me a good price for.
Just a few meters ahead of the Tashiling area was a tourist stop called Davis Falls. Story has it that in the 1960s, a young Western women with the surname Davis and her lover were playing around in the waterfall, before she slipped and fell to her death. Hence, the waterfall was named in honour of her.
In front of the tourist location, small shops were bustling with business as loads of tourists bustled about. I wonder how many of them knew of the Tibetan settlement camp up the corner selling the same, if not better quality, items.
Most Tibetans refugees in the settlement camps make a living out of these handicrafts, as most are not legally allowed to work in Nepal.These camps exist both around Kathmandu and Pokhara. Some people may feel a little hesitation before stepping into a refugee camp, or hold political views different than those expressed at the camps. But whatever your political beliefs are, these refugees are first and foremost people, and they could really benefit economically from a little more business.
Currently there are 12 Tibetan Refugee camps in Nepal, each supervised by a representative appointed by the Central Tibetan Administration.
- Choejor (Chorten & Jorpati)
- Delekling,Chilsa, Solukhumbu
- Norziling tibetan SettlementDorpattan, Baglung
- Jampaling, Lodrik, Tanahu
- Namgyeling, Tserok, Mustang
- Paljorling, Lodrik, Pokhara
- Phakshing & Gyalsa
- Gyegayling,Rasuwa, Dunche
- Samdupling, Jawalakhel
- Tashi Palkhiel, Pokhara
- Tashiling, Pokhara
- Sampheling,Walung, Taplejung
Day 7: Paragliding and (almost) Puking
Started off the day with high spirits as I got ready to try a new experience for me, paragliding. Lift-off was exciting and everything was swell before I started to feel a bit dizzy from circulating in circles up in the air. The bombshell came when my pilot asked if I wanted to do “acrobatics” in the air, to which I replied “sure.” Note to self: NEVER say yes to this offer again because “acrobatics” just means 360 degrees twirling in the air so fast that you feel like your head is about to fall off.
Needless to say, nothing too eventful came from this day after the twirls from hell.
Day 8–10 Temple Hopping around Kathmandu Valley
Final Day: Hope
What can I say, 10 days were all I need to fall in love with Nepal. Even my initial disliking to the capital city wore off, as I dwelled into the chaos of the city, enjoying the hectic beats of life that flow through it.
For our last night in Nepal, we ate a restaurant in Thamel with some local Nepali youths. As we gathered around the fire outside the garden, politics was once again the topic of choice. Through all the talks and encounters I’ve had with local Nepalis on this trip, I am really starting to get the feeling that nobody in this country has trust in their government after years of corruption and bad policy.
Our local friends shared with us how many foreign government aid to Nepal ends up in the wrong hands, and the intended funds often do not reach the beneficiaries. The most shocking (and a bit humorous) piece of information that I heard was: “Usually the streets of Kathmandu is dirty and crowded. However, when foreign leaders comes to visit, the roads they pass by are cleaned, the sidewalks rebuilt, and the houses repainted; even the dust in the air disappears. This is to give off a facade to such foreign leaders to say ‘hey, look, your aid is going to the right places!’ “
Because of the bad political conditions and Nepal’s slow development over the years, many Nepalis have left the country to search for better opportunities abroad. Many opt for the United States.
One local friend owes a cafe near the American Embassy in Kathmandu, and often encounters low-spirited Nepalis customers, fresh out of the Embassy, whose visa applications were rejected. They are angry, upset, and desperate to apply again. In the most extreme case, one man even tried to take his life as he broke a bottle and tried to shove it to his neck. Aghast, I asked: “why would you ever want to take your own life because of a failed visa application?”
He answered: “because each U.S. visa application costs around $200 USD and many rural Nepalis have to borrow around for the money before they have enough to even apply. When they lose that money to a rejected visa application, they not only lose an opportunity for a better life and also a chance to quickly repay that money. Now imagine if they got rejected again, then again, and again. It is hard for citizens of a poor country like Nepal to obtain a visa to a developed country like the U.S., yet they never stop trying.”
Feeling ashamed that I asked such a question, I began to fully grasp the true extent of poverty in Nepal. America may be the land of opportunities, but it is certainly not open to all. Even the poorest people whom wish to leave Nepal but without the means to do so have the right to hope for a better life where ever that may be. As for the people with the means to leave but whom chose to remain, they say, “I believe in my country, I love this land, and I have hope that it will prosper.”
I bought 2 books about Nepal- which I found quite useful in better understanding Nepal- from the Pilgrims Bookstore in Thamel, Kathmandu. Any more suggestions would be appreciated! 🙂
While the Gods Were Sleeping is about an American anthropologist who married into a Brahaman Nepali family in the 80’s, and began to research women’s movements in the region, while sharing interesting snipits of daily life.
Forget Kathmandu is one Nepali journalist’s take on the problems that Democracy faces in Nepal, with the backdrop of the nation’s troubled monarchy.