May 24, 2012
Nepal is the 10th country on our expedition and one that is significant to us. We have been talking about visiting here since 1998, when we saw a trekking presentation while on vacation in Colorado. In 2001, we booked a trek to Annapurna Base Camp. We were scheduled to leave the U.S. on September 14th. However, because of the tragic events of September 11th we couldn’t fly out of the country so had to cancel that trip. Since then, a combination of our schedules and internal problems within Nepal has not made it conducive to visit. As we write this, the country does not have a constitution and is in intense negotiations to produce one. There have been peaceful strikes, which have only affected our ability to use ATMs (but money changers were still open).
Now, ten years later, we finally made it to Nepal and our next trek. We left the heat and humidity of Southeast Asia and flew three hours from Bangkok to Kathmandu, Nepal’s largest city and capital. Kathmandu is at about 4,600 feet (1,400 meters) so it was noticeably cooler as we left the plane and obtained our visas at the airport.
We spent two days in Kathmandu prior to moving into the Himalayas and our trek. The Kathmandu Valley is home to about one third of Nepal’s population of about 30 million people. Our hotel was in the famous Thamel district of the city, known for its maze of streets and shops. Walking through the narrow alleys was invigorating. No matter the time of day there were many people about, including various street vendors, enticing you to look at their wares, and a myriad of stores with everything from souvenirs, to food, to trekking equipment and clothing. Luckily Darren has a good sense of direction or else we would have never been able to get back to our hotel after walking around.
We spent a full day on a city tour with a guide, seeing four of the major religious and cultural sites in the Kathmandu area. Our first stop, Swayambhunath, is an ancient religious complex that is among the oldest religious sites in Nepal. Some areas date from the 5th century AD. Considered Buddhist, both Hindus and Buddhists worship here and we saw many people on the Saturday that we were there. Swayambhunath sits on the top of a hill, requiring a climb of about 400 steps. Besides the great views of Kathmandu from the top, we also saw several monkeys that are considered holy and live within the complex.
Next, we went to the nearby city of Patan, just south of Kathmandu. This area dates from the 3rd century BC. Here we visited the Durbar Square, which contains several historic temples. Down the street from the square we visited a Buddhist temple known as Hiranya Varna Mahavihar or the Golden Temple.
Back towards Kathmandu, we next went to the Pashupatinath Temple, one of the largest and most significant Hindu places in the world. Only Hindus are allowed in the actual temple, but we were able to visit and view the complex from across the Bagmati River. Our last stop was Boudhanath, a major Buddhist site. Its ancient stupa is one of the largest in the world and we walked around the entire structure, while observing the faithful. All four of these sites are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It was a full day and a great introduction to the city and surrounding area.
The next day, a seven-hour bus trip west took us 124 miles (200 kilometers) to Pokhara, Nepal’s second-largest city. More relaxed than Kathmandu, Pokhara sits on a lake and is the gateway to trekking in the Annapurna region. However, we are not doing the same trek that we had planned in 2001 to the Annapurna Base Camp. Instead, we are hiking on the other side of the Annapurna range in the former Mustang kingdom. Only open to foreigners about 20 years ago, and requiring a special permit to enter, we hope to view some authentic culture, as well as experience the natural beauty of the Himalayas while in Mustang.