TL;DR for our Pre-Trek:
Nepal was definitely an Alex-driven destination (“hiking for 12 days in a row?! How awesome!”), but I was game. One of our good friends said that Nepal was one of his favorite destinations and he didn’t do any trekking at all.
After sweating an Olympic swimming pool worth of sweat in India, we figured it’d make sense to cool off for a few days in Nepal, get our bearings, and get our trek organized. After a bit of research, we learned that Kathmandu was not our style (dense and dusty with lots of traffic) so we decided to head to Bhaktapur (45 min east) to get some relaxation in.
Bhaktapur is worlds different from Kathmandu. It’s smaller (300,000 people versus Kathmandu’s 700,000) and the core of it is pedestrian only– no motorbikes and no cars (though a few seem to ignore this rule). It also feels quite a bit more historical – it’s jammed full of temples and shrines– probably more so than any town we’ve ever seen. We’d decided to spend 4 days there, which was plenty to explore the town, though I certainly could’ve spent more time there just relaxing and absorbing the local flavor.
Once again, Google maps on a handheld device was a navigating godsend. While Google is woefully bad at finding individual businesses (probably challenging when they don’t have actual addresses!), it helped us get back to our inn on more than one occasion.
We had to be diligent about charging our devices, though– Nepal has rolling electricity blackouts pretty much wherever you go. The upscale places have generators that power essential things like lights, but NOT things like AC and power outlets.
We stayed at Vajra Guesthouse, which was a wonderful first introduction to Nepali service… The people at the inn were absolutely charming– all smiles and doing there absolute best to keep us happy. Every morning, the boy at the desk would ask how I was. I’d return the question and he’d always respond, “I’m cool!”, which always made me laugh. Vajra was right off of Durbar Square, which is the main square of the town (lots of temples and people hanging around them). Other squares that are worth visiting include Taumadhi Square and Dattatreya Square.
Cow Festival – a Cheerful Celebration of Death
We’d read about a “Cow Festival” in Nepal that we thought we’d missed (we have a running joke that we always arrive two days after any significant cultural event wherever we go). But at our first lunch (at the charming 2nd floor eatery called Cafe Nyatapola) we started hearing drums and chanting and then this guy rolled into the square below us with a parade lined up behind him.
It turns out there were two days left in the festival!
The Cow Festival seems like a pretty cheerful celebration (with lots of kids participating) but it’s all about death. It’s a celebratory commemoration of anyone who has died in the previous year. The kids all dress up, but tons of people chip in, parading around the town with cymbals, drums, flutes, and 3-foot long sticks they bang together while they chant. Here’s a taste:
The last day seemed a bit more spiritual, with slower processions of people with candles on their heads and shoulders (!) and a line of hundreds of women with food offerings heading towards the temple.
The whole thing was so beautiful and authentic. When you travel to touristy places, cultural displays are often for the benefit of tourists… But other than some day-trippers from Kathmandu during the afternoon, we saw virtually zero white faces in Bhaktapur.
Food in the Kathmandu Valley
Food here is a mishmash of local Newari food (truly strange but tasty) as well as Chinese, Indian, and Tibetan fare. Almost every place offers momos, which are tasty little dumplings filled with meat and/or veggies (get the “buff momos” for your first taste of water buffalo!). The food is a good signal for just how much of a melting pot Nepal is. Not only does it have lots of people who originally came from India, China, or Tibet, but it has over 120 languages that are spoken within its borders, with quite a few distinct regional cuisines.
Off to Kathmandu
Despite Bob Seger’s enthusiastic endorsement, Kathmandu is not a city that you’ll want to spend much time in. If you want temples and Nepali culture, hit Bhaktapur. If you need to organize and shop for a trek, go to Kathmandu for the minimal time possible. Our first impression was TRAFFIC. The city is choked with vehicles on dusty roads… Which brings me to our second impression: DUST. Tons of the residents wore masks over their faces (some decorated!) to keep from inhaling both the dust and terrible pollution.
We stayed in the Thamel neighborhood, which was pretty much where 95% of the hotels are. It’s totally tourist-focused, with tons of guiding companies, restaurants, and stores selling knock-off North Face gear for trekking. Our plan was to hook up with our trekking agent (Nirmal of Himalayan Magic – he was fabulous), buy a bit of gear and then head out on our 12+ day trek ASAP.
Want to Trek? It’s a pretty wild experience and not for the feint at heart (or leg!)… But I’d recommend it if you like hiking and are in decent shape. We have a whole post on the topic, which is coming up next on the blog (stay tuned to this channel!).
We bought about $100 worth of disposable gear (stuff we were going to use for the trek and then give to our porter/guide), including trekking poles, ponchos, warm gloves, water bottles, a few extra pairs of socks, and iodine tablets (which we ended up not using) and headed out of town…
Next stop, 14,000 feet!