First Impressions of Nepal

Having been in Nepal for just over a week now there are two things that jump out when one first arrives in this wonderful country: the scenery and the people.

Firstly, the people of Nepal are amongst the happiest, friendliest and warmest I have ever come across. Just walking down the street don’t be surprised to be greeted by strangers with a wide grin and a loud “Namaste!” And they will be more than welcoming to offer you some tea (I don’t think I’ve ever drunk as much tea as I have this past week, however sweet it has been). Such happiness obviously wears off onto yourself and you soon walk around with an uplifting sense of euphoria. It’s a feeling that is rare to experience within such a short amount of time.

As for the scenery… Well, I always knew the Himalayas would be spectacular, but you only really get a sense for them when you see them in reality. They quite simply are the highest mountain range in the world and therefore nothing can match them for their pure presence. You may find yourself losing track of time whilst staring at them.

And so I can honestly say that there is something special about this country and I cannot wait to further explore it through trekking, rafting and whatever other adventures it has in store.

What’s So Special About Bhaktapur?

For anyone thinking about visiting Nepal for the first time, especially for a trekking adventure, the image of this country is almost invariably of snow-capped mountains and sturdy sherpa villagers. Not many aspiring trekkers give much thought to the what the rest of the country is like. They also rarely consider an alternative to Kathmandu as a starting and ending point for their trek. As a result they often leave Nepal having only experienced a very narrow, and misrepresentative, portion of what this country can offer any traveler.

For reasons of convenience, over 99% of all tour and trekking companies in Nepal are located either in Kathmandu or Pokhara, the two largest cities. The vast majority of those companies are stuffed into Kathmandu’s crowded Thamel tourist district, where they can most easily sell and service the tourists who are herded into this ghetto of guest houses, souvenir shops and street vendors. For trekkers who are only interested in getting up to a base camp destination to claim their bucket list prize, Thamel and the rest of central Kathmandu is a convenient potpouri of relative comfort, obligatory sightseeing, shopping, and celebratory dining. They overlook the pollution, chaos, commercialism and artificial culture that surrounds them as they focus on either their upcoming challenge or recent triumph. Others trekkers sense, and sometimes complain, that Kathmandu left them with bad memories, an ill-fitting locale to prepare for their trek. But they are rarely offered the choice of enjoying anywhere else, even though alternatives are reasonably close by. Most of the Nepal tourist industry operates just like its counterparts around the world, corraling clients into the the areas that are most convenient and profitable for them, rather than where their guests might discover exactly what they are looking for (and even some things they had no idea existed).

We are very fortunate at ITrekNepal that most of our staff and their families are from Bhaktapur, the UNESCO World Heritage city on the outskirts of Kathmandu. It is why we decided years ago to locate our office here, and why we encourage our clients (guests) to stay here before starting their treks (amazing fact: since the new road was built in 2010 it now takes less time to get from the Kathmandu airport to Bhaktapur than into Thamel). With the completion of the Bhaktapur road there have also been several high quality hotels built in Bhaktapur (more about that in a moment).

One of the most unique parts of an ITrekNepal itinerary is the morning of the second day after arrival in Nepal. While trekkers encamped in Thamel hotels are awakening to the the din of Kathmandu traffic and street hawkers, our guests go hiking with us in the neaby Gundu valley. This remarkable refuge, which we call “The Hidden Valley of Gundu”, is within easy walking distance of any Bhaktapur hotel, but closest to the Hotel Heritage (our favorite). Having explored countless rural valleys throughout central Nepal, I still think that Gundu is the most pristine, alluring and beautiful of them all. A 2 – 3 hour hike in the Gundu is the perfect way to stretch legs after a long flight and to be introduced to Nepal’s village culture. When I escort guests on these hikes (it’s the only time I get to be a guide), they often exclaim “I had no idea there was anything like this in Nepal!” We gaze over rice fields where the red saris of women tilling their crops are set against the bright green and yellows of the fields. We are greeted by wide-eyed villagers who often invite us into their homes for tea, delighted that foreigners would want to visit their village (we are virtually the only ones who do). We walk through beautiful rhododendron and pine forests. In the spring the rhododendrons are in full bloom, and locals are picking the blossoms (Nepal’s national flower) to decorate their homes. We stop at Hindu temples set high above the valley, where Bhaktapur residents come to worship at one of the three temples in the Gundu, each devoted to the gods Shiva and Ganesh. We might even visit the local school where children in tidy green uniforms will stop their lessons to greet us gleefully with the English phrases they’ve been practicing.

The forests around the Gundu Valley are so special that the Nepal government is planning to eventually establish a wildlife preserve and recreation center in this area. When this happens the valley may lose some of its unique, unspoiled appeal. Until then ITrekNepal guests can enjoy a very special experience.

So when our guests share their amazement at the hidden treasures of the Gundu Valley and say that they had had no idea anything like this existed in Nepal, I usually reply that they also have no idea what they are missing in downtown Kathmandu, and how lucky they really are to be here. Later that same day one of our local staff will take them on a tour of Bhaktapur. This World Heritage site is fascinating no matter how it is seen, but with ITrekNepal guides it takes on an entirely new dimension. When tourists from Kathmandu visit Bhaktapur for a couple of hours they are invariably guided by someone who lives in Kathmandu. ITrekNepal guests tour the town and cultural sites in the company of someone who has lived here all his or her entire life, and whose families go back many generations in this ancient city. They not only see the popular sights, but also meet other residents, visit local homes, and even enjoy festivals and religious rituals along with the families of our staff. It all adds up to an remarkably personal and authentic Nepal experience, completely different from the packaged Kathmandu tours that are invariably offered by other companies. It should also be noted that while some treks get off the beaten path and visit remote villages, most treks follow well-trodden routes where locals see thousands of visitors every year. Parts of Bhaktapur and all of the Gundu Valley see fewer visitors in a year than the popular Everest and Anapurna trails see in a day!

A few years ago some sacrifices had to be made to stay in Bhaktapur. Not only was there no decent road here from Kathmandu but the hotel choices were limited to a few simple guest houses. Now the trip from Kathmandu airport takes only 20 minutes, and there are three very good new hotels that combine traditional design with western comforts and service. The best of these is the Hotel Heritage, a 4 star category hotel that has been constructed in the traditional Newari style. The Heritage is unquestionably the best hotel in Bhaktapur (and equal to the best in Kathmandu), with large, comfortable rooms, a remarkably good restaurant, impeccable service, and an authentic Nepali ambience. It is also located right next to the ITrekNepal office, making it very convenient for our guests to prepare for their treks, or get any other help that they need.

Although ITrekNepal guests have the option to stay in Thamel after a trek, many prefer to return to Bhaktapur for their final night after they return from the mountains. I think it’s actually a toss-up which is the best place to stay after a trek, depending on your interests. There’s nothing quite like celebrating a challenging achievement (like reaching Everest Base Camp) at a raucous restarant or bar along with other revelers after your trek. But there is nothing better than being introduced to the “real Nepal” with a stay in Bhaktapur before starting a trek.

Bisket Jatra (Nepali New Year) is just around the corner!

Here is some information regarding this festive New Year celebration in Bhaktapur on April 14th:

Bisket Jatra is the annual celebration of two of the most important deities of the town of Bhaktapur, the wrathful god Bhairab and the goddess Bhadrakali.

Bisket Jatra heralds the start of the Nepali New Year and is celebrated with the most intensity in Bhaktapur. In one of the most exciting annual events in the Kathmandu valley, a huge chariot carrying images of the god Bhairab is hauled by dozens of young men to Khalna Tole. The creaking and swaying chariot lumbers around town, pausing for a huge tug of war between the eastern and western sides of town. The chariot also rests at certain time-honored places in the city and people come out to throw offerings of flower, rice, coins and red sindur powder.

After the battle, the chariots head to Khalna Tole, where a huge 25m-high lingam (phallic symbol) is erected in the stone yoni (female genital symbol) base.

In the evening of the following day (New Year’s Day), the pole is pulled down by contesting terms of men, a moment of danger and excitement and in an often-violent tug-of-war. As the pole crashes to the ground, the New Year officially commences.

Long banners hang from the pole, symbolizing the conquered in a mythological battle. On New Year’s Day, contesting terms of men pull the pole to the ground, a moment of danger and excitement.