We had done absolutely no research on Nepal, and were thus utterly unprepared – a fine thing, when your non-expectations end up wildly exceeded. If pressed to describe Nepal before arriving, I probably would have said something like ‘vaguely Indian, with big mountains. And maybe elephants.’ If asked for more, I may have mentioned landslides and a uniquely shaped flag. Crossing the border from China, we were greeted with so much more: an abrupt shift from order to chaos and cheerful exuberance, the scent of curry wafting over an unpaved road full of scattering chickens, and the sudden presence of children everywhere you looked. It was a welcome change, though we struggled with another difference – we were several kilometers into Nepal before we discovered that people drive on the left side of the street. The road leading away from the border was so potholed and narrow that everybody just seemed to drive wherever was most feasible, but after the third or fourth truck or motorbike tried to pass us on the right, we figured it out.
Our favorite part of getting into Nepal may have been the visa process. Unlike most of the countries we’ve visited on this trip, they provide a visa on arrival. For $40, and with no additional documentation, a man at a wooden desk wearing fingerless gloves to protect him from the chill of the Himalayan winter in the unheated customs building (another sharp contrast from China, whose glistening building had efficiently and electronically processed us moments before) placed a sticker in our passport that would allow us to spend a month in Nepal. Thus welcomed, we rode gleefully downhill through the Sun Kosi River valley for the rest of the day, passing endless terraces where people coax crops out of the unforgivingly steep valley sides. We crossed through the aftermath of the landslide that devastated a village several months before – we could tell we were getting close when the river stopped flowing, backed up into a listless pool by the dam formed by the landslide. We failed to take the new road – really just a rough dirt track through the slide – and ended up half pushing, half carrying our bikes through the mud and boulders, right through the remains of the villages that hadn’t been completely buried. I’ve never seen anything like it – an entire mountainside had given way, burying everything below it, blocking off the river, and plowing up the side valley on the other side. An excavator was clawing at the rubble, slowly removing the dam to allow the river to flow downstream again.
We spent the night in a small town farther downriver. For about $8 we got a room with a reeking but functional squat toilet, daal bhat (Nepali meal of rice, daal, vegetable curry and cooked greens) for dinner, and most importantly, electricity and wifi. Here we got our first taste of one of Nepal’s greatest challenges: insufficient electricity. In many of Nepal’s towns and cities, including the capital, the power is out for up to ten hours a day. People use everything from candles to generators to cope with this ‘load-shedding’ – there’s even an app that tells you when the power will go out in Kathmandu – and it’s just a part of life, for now.
We also squeezed some R&R into our time in Nepal – two friends who happened to be in the region came to Kathmandu while we were there, and we also took a week-long trek in the Annapurna Range. I got to join Kaija Hurlburt and her friend Christy Sommers for a hike in Dhulikel, one of the former kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley. The town is full of hidden temples and old brick houses with gently drooping wooden balconies, and the surrounding countryside was bright yellow with ripening mustard, dotted with small villages where people laughed and smiled as we picked up countless baby goats. Ian Monroe came up from India, where he had traveled for his startup, Oroeco; in addition to joining us at Bodhi, one of Kathmandu’s largest Buddhist sites, and a day trip to Bhaktapur, a ‘living museum’ town jam-packed with temples, he introduce us to many of Kathmandu’s energy experts and joined us for some meetings. A post on what we learned is coming soon.
When deciding where to go trekking, we consulted Amrit Ale, owner of Himalayan Quests and a friend of Christy’s. We told him we wanted to go through villages and get high into the mountains, and he suggested the newly established Dhaulagiri Community Trek and connected us with a local guide. It was exactly what we’d hoped for. After a day-long bus ride from Kathmandu to Beni, we met our guide, Prem, and went over the route, which would take us from an elevation of 800m in Beni up to 3700m on the flanks of 7,219m Annapurna South.
As we walked up countless stone steps, we met a number of villagers who Prem helped us interview about climate change. Nearly everybody mentioned that both summers and winters are warmer than they used to be, and that the rainy season has become irregular. At higher elevations, the warmer weather was helpful as it enables people to grow heat-loving crops such as chilis, which couldn’t grow in the colder weather that used to be the norm. However, people said that the changing monsoon makes it difficult to plan – planting seeds at the usual time could result in losses if the rains are late.
We stayed in community lodges most nights, which were built just a few years ago to encourage trekkers to visit the area and increase the benefits of tourism for the communities. We were treated to clear days for the first half of the trek, during which we encountered almost no other tourists and saw spectacular sunrises and sunsets. It started snowing as we reached our highest point, which meant we didn’t get to climb up to a nearby glacier as planned, but instead gave us the chance to read, play in the snow, play cards with Prem and the lodge staff, and take in absurdly beautiful views of the mountains and valleys as thick clouds drifted through. If any of our readers are planning a trip to Nepal, we definitely recommend Himalayan Quests and the Dhaulagiri Community Trek – it stands out as a highlight of our time in Nepal and the entire trip.