In line with our process of being on the ground in the countries we invest in, AFC's Contributing Writer, John Enos, travelled to Nepal at the end of April to cover the country's development from the ground.
The visa line on arrival at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport is a telling sign of the chaos that is omnipresent in Nepal's capital. Hundreds of foreigners and Nepalis were shuffling, pushing, and waiting for the customs officers to return from their tea break and resume stamping passports. Luckily I'd be warned about the long wait and made a beeline for the closest looking immigration official who had a working visa stamp and looked ready to let us in to the country.
We had arranged for our hotel to pick us up from the airport, and by the time we got our bags, it was nearly 10 pm. Entering the city and navigating its labyrinthine alleys was all the more difficult at night given that Kathmandu was almost completely pitch black. Our driver told us that Kathmandu's electricity supply has been stretched far beyond its means, and the city has been strictly rationed to a "loadshedding schedule", meaning that large swathes of the city are without power for 12-16 hours a day! I suppose that explained why the few merchants closing up shop at 10 pm were having conversation and one final cup of tea by candlelight. I had heard of Pakistan's ongoing problems with power cuts, but hadn't been prepared for Nepal to have similar challenges, especially given its aggressive push towards developing the country's hydropower sector.
We woke up early the next morning and drank a large pot of sugary, milky Nepali tea to get ready for a full day of wandering Kathmandu's chaotic streets. Our first stop was Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was once the ruling epicenter for the Kings of the Kathmandu Valley and features all sorts of spectacular buildings and relics from the 17th and 18th centuries. Many of the buildings have intricate carvings and anywhere we looked we could see a marbled elephant or royal lion staring down at us from the crossbeam or roof overhang of a temple.
Nepali men watching a performance and wearing the ubiquitous
Dhaka topi hat worn by men across the country
As it was Nepali New Year when we visited in April, the Durbar Square was bustling in anticipation of the holiday's upcoming festivities - flowers being sold, fried honey momos - Nepalese dumplings - were peddled by street vendors, and crowds gathering round for a traditional Nepali ceremony with elegant singers and enchanting drums.
Crowds gather at a temple in the center of Kathmandu's Durbar Square
Walking back to our hotel after a full day at Durbar Square, we wandered the congested streets of Thamel, which is the main backpacker and tourist bazaar, housing hundreds of shops offering, amongst other things, prayer flags, yak milk soap, pashmina and cashmere scarves, and "authentic" North Face and Columbia trekking gear. We were quite overwhelmed by the selection of goods for sale and how well-targeted the items were to the myriad of tourists passing through Nepal every day. Despite the abundance of shops selling goods aimed at tourists, the Thamel neighborhood still felt authentic; as soon as you took one turn off of the main drag, you'd find yourself lost in another dusty lane chock full of Nepali merchants selling motorcycle parts, henna dyes, and "Nepaliwood" films to local Nepali shoppers. Strolling the maze of Kathmandu was a great way to spend our first day and get a feel of life on the ground in Nepal, seeing the sights that the city had to offer and sampling the local culinary specialties (buffalo-meat dumplings and Tibetan chhaang (millet beer) served warm, anyone?) The only drawback was the level of dust and pollution in the city. Air pollution levels have gotten far worse in recent years due to the increasing number of cars on the road. Nepal's air quality recently ranked 177th out of 178 countries, according to Yale's 2014 Environmental Performance Index (NYSEARCA:EPI), and during peak traffic, the level of small particulate matter can reach 20 times the World Health Organisation's safe upper limit! Needless to say, we soon recognized the necessity of wrapping scarves around our faces to serve as de facto smog masks.
The dusty and manic streets of Kathmandu!
On the second afternoon, to get out of the traffic and get a view of the Kathmandu Valley, we ventured up to Swayambhunath, an ancient religious complex towering over the city and also known as the "Monkey Temple". I've learned far too often living in Asia that monkeys, in reality, are far from the cute little animals in movies and are usually cheeky little pests that pull your hair and snatch your snacks right from your hands. We kept a close eye on the wild packs of monkeys jumping from temple to tree, waiting for opportune moments to steal a camera or a cookie from unsuspecting tourists.
Only 365 more steps to go…dodging monkeys and making
the climb to the stupa on top of Swayambhunath
Swayambhunath is reportedly one of the most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites, and I can see why. Once we finally surmounted the climb to the top of the temple (365 steps…thank god I'm not a smoker), we were graced with breathtaking views of the city and scores of Buddhist pilgrims walking clockwise around the stupa while local monks looked on and Nepali prayers were recited. Perhaps the experience felt surreal because I was short of oxygen, but it was definitely an entrancing scene.
Nepali monks and locals gaze out at the hazy skyline
of Kathmandu as Buddhist prayer flags fly
Buddhist pilgrims come to spin the prayer wheels while
chanting the Sanskrit mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum"
Leaving Kathmandu, we headed to Bhaktapur, an ancient Newar town in the Kathmandu Valley with an equally astonishing Durbar Square, before taking a terrifying 8-hour busride on the edge of the Himalayas to Pokhara, Nepal's lakeside town famous for its adventure sports that often draws comparisons to Swiss Alpine towns. Despite queasy stomachs that kept us bed-ridden for a few days, we still managed to try out whitewater rafting and paragliding. I must say, standing on the edge of a cliff with a questionably-durable parachute strapped behind me and a chain-smoking French adrenaline junkie instructing me to "run as fast as you can off the mountain" made me wonder at the last minute whether paragliding in a developing country was such a bright idea, but it ended up being incredible and worth the risk for the world-class views. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants a sense of what it would be like if humans could fly.
A view over the terraced Pokhara Valley, taken while paragliding
10 days in Nepal felt too short, and many of the travelers we met were there for much longer, with ambitious treks planned for the Annapurna Circuit or Everest Base Camp. The duration of the trip did allow us to experience the enchanting allure of Nepal and it was easy to see why so many tourists keep coming back. Tourism is a key sector of the Nepali economy, and we saw all types of visitors, from Korean families to Austrian mountaineers to dreadlocked young backpackers attempting to recreate the Hippie Trail of the '60s. But Nepalis are quickly catching on to the rise of Asia's disposable income - we met loads of tourists from China, Thailand, and Malaysia. One moment in particular summarized the extent of globalization's reach today. While shopping in a customized leather store, my girlfriend and I noticed that a Chinese couple was speaking to the shopkeeper in Chinese and pointing at us. We were amazed to learn that the shopkeeper, who was Pakistani, was fluent in Mandarin (as well as English, Urdu, Nepali, and some French), and he translated for us, saying that the Chinese couple thought we looked sharp in the leather jackets and that similar merchandise would be far more expensive in Beijing. What a situation - a Pakistani leather trader translating Mandarin to English for his Chinese and American customers in Kathmandu. The spirit of travel and trade is clearly alive and well!
Nepal is well-suited to handle travelers of every variety, and the hospitality and warmth of the Nepali people ensured the trip was hassle-free. If you're looking for an adventurous getaway to a country that feels different from anywhere I've ever been, I'd highly recommend taking a closer look at Nepal.