First of all, a milestone. This is my 200th travel story. I didn’t count them, but I number the folders, so I know. Soooo many trips…
As I mentioned before, I came to Nepal for an Indian visa run. It was the best option, despite the fact that this was perhaps not the best time to visit Nepal. Don’t get me wrong, I love Nepal, but a multitude of factors contributed to making this stay difficult, some of which I did not expect.
Of course I knew about the terrible 2015 earthquake that killed nearly 9,000 people. There was actually a fairly strong aftershock when I was there, around 5.4 in magnitude. I am rather unafraid of earthquakes, almost certainly stupidly so. I looked outside to see if people were panicking and went back to bed. In the news, I read there were only a few people injured, mainly tumbling down the stairs trying to rush out of buildings.
In most places, the aftermath was not visible to a foreigner. Of course to the Nepalis, it might still be apparent in that the vacant lot I was looking at used to have a building on it.
But scenes like these were rare. The Nepali are not afraid of hard work, so I guess a lot of clean-up and repair has occurred in the last 7 months.
The one place you could easily observe it was at monuments of historical importance, as obviously, tearing it down and rebuilding is not an option. Several structures around temples were being shore up like this, pending more serious repairs.
The disaster left 3.5 million people homeless, and tent cities can still be seen around Kathmandu. In the countryside, I also saw lots of people living in a basic hut located next to a pile of stones. Obviously, the piles of stones used to be their houses.
A more recent, man made crisis, is the critical shortage of fuel. In a nutshell, Nepal has a complicated, conflictual relationship with its main trading partner, India. Also, border tribes are unhappy about recent constitutional reforms. As a result, both tribal groups and India block most of the fuel from transiting into the oil-less nation. India denies doing that, but if they are not, then all the fuel trucks entering Nepal must mysteriously disappear, abducted by aliens, because they certainly don’t make it to the petrol station.
A line of buses waiting for fuel. If I understood correctly, only public transportation vehicles can get fuel at petrol stations. Private vehicles are entirely reliant on the black market, where prices exceed US$2 a litre. This might seem like a bargain for my Norwegian friends, but it is extremely expensive for impoverished Nepal. The Chinese are partially stepping up, but fuel exports through Tibet must cross the Himalayas, which is expensive and always a little precarious. I know, I took that road a few years ago (very nice mountain pictures along that road BTW).
Intercity ground transport in Nepal comes in 3 forms. Local buses, which are dirt cheap but terrible. Tourist buses, which are 10 times more expensive but OK. And private taxis, which are 50-100 times more expensive, but nice to very nice. During my last visit, I took the tourist bus to Pokhara. But because of the crisis and lack of tourists, most tourist buses we not running, so I had to rely on very expensive taxis. And again because of the lack of tourists, I never found someone to share them with. Once, I thought of taking a local bus, but I chickened out. I felt a bit like a wuss, until my taxi caught up with said bus.
Never mind the comfort, it’s just not safe. Although when it’s not raining, riding on the roof is fun.
What I really didn’t expect was the electricity situation. Despite what the previous picture suggests, this was the dry season and water reservoirs were low. Since most electricity is hydro generated in Nepal, this leave supply far below demand for power. Because of this, during the daytime authorities have to resort to planned power outages by district. This leaves residents with only 3 hours of power during the day.
My hotel’s schedule. Bear in mind, this is not the “power” schedule, but the “power cut” schedule! Thanks to generators, I had minimal but sufficient lighting and slow WiFi 24 h a day.
When I first visited Kathmandu, I had arrived from China. I thought the city was noisy and dirty. This time, coming from India, I thought it was not so noisy and mostly clean.
But Thamel, the area popular with tourists since hippy days, was dead. I apologetically told some Nepalis that I found it nicer now to walk in Thamel, without the pedestrian traffic jams and the crazy noise. But the impact on local businesses must be terrible. Some restaurants and cafes can partially rely on well-off Nepalis, but the countless tour operators and sellers of hiking gear and souvenirs are all completely empty. Even the drug dealers constantly pestering tourists seem desperate for some business.
Despite all this, I had time to kill, so I went for some Kathmandu sightseeing for the first time. During my previous visit, I had just “headed straight for the hills” (well, 7,000+ m altitude “hills”).
On the more local shopping streets the difficulties were not immediately obvious.
Durbar Marg, the poshest street in Kathmandu. I know it doesn’t look like much on the picture, but there are some nice store and restaurants there. And it sees a mix of well-off locals and tourists, always nicer than the 99% foreign restaurants of Thamel.
The Garden of Dreams, built a long time ago by a local big shot, abandoned for decades and recently restored. A pleasant break from the noisy streets.
The steps to the Harati Devi Temple.
Typical Buddhist prayer flags, just like you find in Tibet.
I don’t think the main temple was damaged, but the structure with supports I showed you earlier was located there. The place is full of animals: dogs, pigeons and monkeys. Unsurprising, since people feed them.
Monkeys having a drink!
The National Museum was being visited by local schools, me, and nobody else. It houses a nice collection of local art.
Despite the sign, clearly a part of the statue is being touched a lot.
One room housed a collection of dolls dressed in the traditional costumes of various countries. Not something that would normally interest me.
But I did notice one of the German dolls was a transvestite. Interesting.
I also saw the absolute last thing I expected to see, a small piece of Moon rock and a miniature Nepali flag that flew there and back! Given by Richard Nixon to the King of Nepal.
The Military Museum. Again, only school kids and me. Because of the power shortage and the building’s lack of windows, I have no good pictures to show you.
Around the Boudhanath, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the largest stupa in the word. Because the area around it is car-free, it is one of the most pleasant strolls in the city. As in all Buddhist sites in the region, go around counter-clockwise, that’s what the pilgrims do.
It’s also nice to see the people performing their rituals.
But unfortunately, the earthquake destroyed much of the Boudhanath, and there is not much left to look at, except the giant poster showing what it used to look like. The good news is that they are busy rebuilding it.
Happy Hour on girly drinks at the Funky Buddha Bar. I had mentioned on Facebook that I was in Kathmandu and my friend Rachel, from Singapore, said she would be there the next day. Happy coincidence, but the day after that we were headed in different directions. She was headed to Phokara, which I love but considered too far for my short stay. As soon as I had my Indian visa, I headed for the village of Nagarkot for a few days.
It was deader than dead. I asked my hotel owner how such places could even stay in business. He said restaurant or hotel owners in Nepal usually own the building. So you have hard times, but you don’t necessarily go bankrupt trying to pay rent. I would normally not eat in such an empty restaurant, but they were all like that. Since I was starving, I reluctantly ordered vegetable soup and chicken fried rice. The boy left the house and came back a few minutes later with vegetables. I heard a lot of chopping coming from the kitchen and eventually soup appeared.
Followed by chicken fried rice, all made from scratch and delicious, especially with the coriander. It may not appear so, but that is a pretty big plate. I mentioned it to the owner/manager/hostess/cook/waitress/barmaid/busgirl and she said: “Of course, I made a big plate. You said you were very hungry”. Just the nicest people you will ever meet. And it is relatively easy to find people who speak English because of Nepal’s colonial history. Since none of Nepal’s 123 native languages are spoken by a majority of citizens, English has become the common language for official and business matters. Nepali is the most common language for everyday stuff, but the first language of only 44% of Nepalis.
As soon as I saw this sign painted on the street next to a local Army base, I was ready to bet $1000 on its meaning: Basic Fitness Test Start Point”.
The reason to go to Nagarkot is to see this.
I saw that
Although hazy, the hiking around local villages was pleasant enough.
People often talk of the beauty of nature, untouched by development. I generally agree, but I must say I find terraced agriculture even nicer than an untouched mountain!
Just to prove they exist, here is a very, very heavily Photoshopped picture giving you an idea of what I would have seen had the weather cooperated.
The “Nepali Set” (Dal bhat). This is more than typical. During my previous trip, when I hiked to the Annapurna Base Camp, I don’t think I ever saw a Nepali guide or porter eat something else. This is a fairly fancy version, complete with chicken. Only rice and lentil soup (on the right) would be the most basic version.
And one of my favourite photographic “hobby”, capturing people doing dangerous jobs.
This truck is too high for the power lines, so this man’s job is to stand on the roof and lift up the power lines with a stick!
And there are quite a few of them sometimes.
Bare foot on a bamboo stick, painting the roof. If it does’t seem so bad to you, here is another perspective.
So, is this a good time to go to Nepal? Hard to say. It depends on what you want to do. My trip ending up being a little disappointing and overpriced. But if you wanted to hike in the amazing Pokhara region and not go anywhere too unusual, it might be the perfect time. The tourist buses still run, the mountains will certainly not be crowded and the country really needs the tourists to return. One thing is for sure; when thinking of travelling to Nepal, read the latest news before you buy the ticket!