Nepal: few places seem as exotic and far away, but it is absolutely worth the trip. And you don’t have to be a mountaineer to experience its famous Himalayas.
Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of enjoying a 10-day trek and tour of Nepal that was featured on Travelzoo last year. The offer, from Earthbound Expeditions, featured a moderate 5-day trek in Nepal’s famous Annapurna region, five nights in the cities of Kathmandu and Pokhara, and five optional sunrise yoga sessions. Although I’m based in Travelzoo’s Singapore office, which is just a 4.5-hour flight from Kathmandu, the 13 other people in my group all made the long trip from the United States. Despite complicated multi-flight itineraries, by the trip’s end I think everyone agreed this was indeed the trip of a lifetime.
A small country situated between the two superpowers of China and India, Nepal is a tourism powerhouse in its own right, boasting eight of the ten highest mountains in the world (including the Granddaddy of them all, Mount Everest). As the birthplace of the Buddha, it holds great spiritual significance for both Buddhists and Hindus, and the country is filled with colourful festivals, gorgeous temples, and fascinating legends. One afternoon in Kathmandu, I even got to see a ‘living goddess’ known as the Kumari, a 10-year old girl who is one of the most powerful and revered people in the entire country.
But the jaw-dropping scenery -- from winding mountain roads, to verdant terraced hillsides, to jagged snowcapped mountain peaks -- was the highlight for me. Well, that and the people. Nepal is not only the most physically stunning country I’ve ever visited, it’s among the friendliest. From children playing along the trail to friendly innkeepers plying us with steaming mugs of fresh-brewed tea, Nepal’s hospitality truly stood out. And then there was my group’s guide, Shree, whose love for the mountains and trekking was palpable. His jocular enthusiasm was infectious, so that our group of 14 disparate trekkers ranging in age from 31 to 79 (plus five young Nepali porters) felt like a group of old friends by the trek’s end. In travel, it’s a country’s people who can really make a place stand out, and that was certainly the case here, as Shree and the porters made a good trip outstanding.
Each day of our hike offered a new visual gift -- a suspension bridge over a rushing river, a panoramic sunrise at 10,000 feet, pink rhododendrons cascading down the face of a mountain, the list goes on and on. I love to take pictures but the scenery was so consistently spectacular that I finally realized I’d be stopping every five minutes if I didn’t put my camera away to hike. And I’m glad that I did, because the hiking was fantastic. In the mornings we set out at around 7am, stopping every so often for water, tea breaks (yes, there are lovely tea houses and villages all along the trail), and hearty lunches. Although dishes like pasta and pizza (and candy bars) were surprisingly on offer, I preferred local fare like momos (vegetable dumplings) and dal bhat (lentil soup and rice), Nepal’s ubiquitous national dish that’s beloved for its delicious and filling properties. One of Shree’s favorite catchphrases and a popular t-shirt sold on the streets of Kathmandu and Pokhara had the slogan ‘Dal bhat power, 24-hour!’
The trekking is characterized as ‘easy-to-moderate’, but it’s a bit more challenging than that. We all became well-versed in yet another Nepali truism: ‘Nepali flat: little bit up, little bit down.’ Whether hiking the trails or riding a bus over a winding mountain pass, one’s concept of ‘flat’ definitely begins to morph.
Each of the four groups on our trek had a guide and five porters, allowing every person to go at their own pace. Our daily distances ranged from about 5 miles to almost 10 on the longest day. I’m a fast trekker, so most days I was typically done trekking by 3 or 4pm, whereas others in my group finished an hour or so later. Compared to other hikes I’ve done, though, this one was far more rewarding in terms of both the views it afforded and the surprisingly comfortable lodging that awaited us each night.
During the trek we stayed at ‘hotels’, which offered, clean, extremely basic wooden rooms with fairly comfortable beds and electricity. Bathrooms were shared, but featured mostly flushing toilets as well as hot showers. Meals were served family-style in bright and cosy dining halls, some with warm stoves. Since I grew up camping in tents in the backwoods of New Hampshire, I found it all positively luxurious!
By day three of the trek, I was waking up on my own -- without aid of alarm -- at sunrise, eager to spend the day outside exercising, breathing fresh air, and engaging in good conversation. I honestly can’t recall a vacation where I’ve felt so good both mentally and physically (I also lost about five pounds during the hike, bonus!). After trekking in Nepal, it’s hard to fathom going back to vacations spent lying by the pool sipping cocktails.
By the fifth and final day of the trek, I was quite sad to be returning to civilisation, although I did enjoy the two days I spent in the beautiful lakeside town of Pokhara, which is filled with great restaurants, shops and yet more spectacular scenery. (It’s also home to lots of great massage therapists, which I greatly appreciated post-hike). With new friends made during the trek, we opted to take a 25-minute flight back from Pokhara to Kathmandu, and this was money (and time) very well spent, as it allowed us a full day of sightseeing to take in Kathmandu’s fascinating UNESCO World Heritage sites and architecture. Kathmandu is chaotic and dusty, but it gave me an ever deeper appreciation for the beauty and serenity of Nepal’s mountains.
So for anyone pondering a trip to Nepal, I say go. The long flights, a bit of jetlag and some bumpy bus rides make the spectacular scenery and lovely people that await you all the more rewarding. I thought Nepal would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but now I can’t wait to go back.
Click here to see the images of this trip on Facebook.