Day 3 and 4: nagarkot, sankhu and a guiding experience

We woke up around 530 easily, our inner clocks still all screwed up and set to wake us early and put us to bed early. 

We bundled up and headed out to the rooftop to watch the sunrise over the Himalayas. As I said in the last post we learned that over the last two weeks, it had been impossible to see the mountains at all. But that morning, even though they weren’t super clear, you could watch as the east faces of the mountains lit up, and all I could think about what that there were people up there, on those mountains, possibly summiting and watching the same sunrise as Amy and I. 

That day we also wanted to do a hike to a look out, where a lot of people generally go to watch the sunrise (when their hotel doesn’t have a fancy rooftop). After asking at the front desk of the hotel for information about that hike, a guy ran after us to see if we wanted a guide. We told this man, whose name was deepak, that we planned to walk up the road to the lookout, which was the main way to get there. No,no, he said, there is a better way to get there through the woods, there’s a trail. Is the trail easy to find, we asked. Oh no, very difficult to find. We weighed it over and asked the cost which he said was 2000 rupees (about $20). This was a LOT of money and we asked how long the hike was. He told us 4-5 hours. Eventually we agreed — we didn’t know the area and if it was that far and hard to follow the trail a guide would be great. And in a place hard hit by the earthquake, it felt reasonable to pay a little more, to help in a small way. 

Deepak led us to the start of the trail, which was basically the most obvious entrance to a trail ever. So, that was his first lie, which he exacerbated by turning to is after two minutes of walking on a well worn path and saying, “see isn’t this hard to follow?” We were like…uhhhhhhhhhhhh, sigh. 

Eventually we were happy to have him with us, as we got to certain points where we were either walking right through people’s yards (which would have been super awkward without him) or having to pick whether to follow one trail or another. 

We happened to go by deepak’s house along the way, where we met one of his daughters and his youngest son, and his wife, who invited us to lunch. We were so pleased and agreed immediately. Deepak’s family also had a TON of goats, including some baby ones that were to die for. I wanted to pet it so bad but it wasn’t having any of that. 

After about 45 min to an hour (so that’s lie #2) we made it to the viewpoint and it did not disappoint. From the hotel we saw the mountains from a vantage point where there was a hill in front of the Himalayas, making them impressive but hiding their massiveness a bit. From this other viewpoint, the mountains rose from a valley floor and from there, they looked, as they are, epically huge. They were in the sky so high that I almost mistook their peaks — which were really the only part you could see — for clouds. We got a mini glimpse of Everest from this viewpoint too, which was, deepak said, about 100 miles away (but with his track record, who knows — I haven’t confirmed with a map). 

After this we headed back down for lunch and were treated to dal bhat, which was the same meal we’d made for ourselves at the cooking class. It was at this point where things got kind of awkward. Amy and I had talked and decided we’d add a little extra to the amount we’d agreed to pay since they’d so kindly offered us lunch — we would give an additional 100 rupees or so, which was on par with what we’d paid in restaurants and took into account the fact he’d way overcharged is for the day. We planned when we paid him back at the hotel we’d give him the extra as a thank you for being such a kind guide. However, at the end of dinner (which was fine but didn’t really include vegetables (which it usually does) or lentils (which it usually does)) when we stood to go, deepak asked us, “so can you do something for her?” and then they both stared at us. We told him yeah, we actually had planned to give him extra at the end, but he told us that now was better. So we asked how much, and he said whatever you think. So I took out 100 rupees and handed it to his wife and she made this smile laugh noise and Amy and I weren’t sure what it meant. Happiness? Scoffing? We asked what it meant, if it was enough and he said, probably 100 more. So we gave it to her. And it wasn’t that it was so much money or that we were unhappy with the meal or ungrateful, but the way in which we were asked and the fact that it hadn’t been clear before he asked that the offer of lunch was a transaction and not just a kindness — it was strange and a bummer and really gave us a bummed feeling. 

We’d already agreed that he would guide us to sankhu he next day for the same price as our 2hour hike. Even though lonely planet said the hike was 2.5 to 4 hours, he said it was 5-6, the path was hard to follow, and that we would need a guide. He agreed to take us to sankhu and further, to the oldest temple in Nepal, another 1.5 hours walk from sankhu. We said in exchange we’d buy him a bus ticket back to nagarkot. 

Now, we felt unhappy or at least wary of this arrangement. during the day’s hike, he’d shown us receipts from his daughters school -and while it was interesting (and expensive), it was no accident he had them with him. It felt a little play acted, obvious, and awkward. 

Amy and I struggled that night to put words to the discomfort we felt. It made sense to us that we should pay a fair wage, and perhaps more, to anyone here in Nepal. Their need was greater. We had more. Especially after the earthquake, things needed to be rebuilt and we wanted our presence here as tourists to be a help to progress, not a hindrance. We didn’t mind paying extra, sometimes, viewing it as more like a donation of a sort to a country and a people that were kind enough to welcome us to their country and who were working to rebuild. 

However, we minded the lying or obviously planned omissions. We minded being played. We minded being made to feel awkward and cheap. 

At the same time, in a place like Nepal, where we are so privileged in comparison, is there any other way to feel? It’s fair that they view tourists as money bags — we are. It’s fair they want more. Who doesn’t? But it still didn’t sit right. We discussed cancelling his guiding the next day but ultimately decided to keep our side of the deal — he’d be our guide, but any funny business with money and we’d hold firm on our price and our deal, which we felt was fair. 

It turned out we were right to be wary. While we were happy for having a guide at certain points, it definitely wasn’t necessary. We stayed along the road for most of the hike and at one point I asked “is the road over there?” and he said no, even though ten minutes later we crossed the road. It was 2.5 hours to get to sankhu (not the 5-6 he’d insisted on) and he tried to charge us extra to go to the temple. When we got to sankhu he also tried to tell us that there wasn’t a bus to nagarkot, and that he had to take three buses back home, which would cost three times as much. At that point, his word was pretty much worth nothing and we were tired of the lies and the evasion. I also remembered reading about a bus to nagarkot from sankhu. So we told him wed pay the cost of the bus that we’d paid yesterday from a town further away – 40 rupees. we paid him and walked off, pretty unhappy with him in the end. We confirmed with a local there was definitely a bus to nagarkot, and that it was 30 rupees, so we felt good about sticking to our guns. 

It felt like such a demoralizing experience, really turbofan us off to the idea of having a guide in the future if it was going to be like this experience. 

The whole thing  Ibrought up a lot of questions for us about what was ethical or moral in these situations, whether deepak’s actions and words were fair or not, whether *our* actions were fair or not. I don’t think we ended up with any conclusions, just the feeling of disappointment that the interaction with him went as it did. 

Now, we’re back in Kathmandu, having left the luxury of our hotel and the many baby goats we saw along the walk to sankhu behind (pics on Facebook and to be added later here). 

Tonight, we’re staying at a new hostel with a great vibe and doing a vinyasa yoga class and tomorrow, we head to pokhara for several days via tourist bus — aka, we’ll have a seat for the 8-10 hour trip, which starts bright at early, at 7 a.m.  

Til next time!

Day 2 Kathmandu to Nagarkot: The bus and the Himalayas

lonely planet and everyone on the internet agreed–there might be a tourist bus to Nagarkot. That tourist bus might leave from either one bus park or another, and if it did exist it would leave at 1:30pm. 
As you can imagine, this wishy washy information was not super helpful. We wanted to take a tourist bus because though they cost more money they’re generally more direct and much less crowded. On public buses, you cram into every nook and cranny, standing and sitting, and even when you think the bus is so full you can hardly move, people are apt to shove in further. It’s not really a comfortable experience. 

So we tried to find the tourist bus after the monkey temple, to no avail. Two tourist companies we stopped in to ask said it didn’t exist (we found out later it stopped running after the earthquake, for reasons we’re not sure). The Public bus was going to be our only option. 

After packing up at the hostel to head to the bus stop near ratna park, where we hopped on to a bus that was just leaving for bhaktapur, where we’d change buses to get to nagarkot. 

It was a pretty reasonable ride, highway roads with only a few dirt roads, not super unbelievably crowded and the crowd thinned as we got toward bhaktapur. The only wild piece of the ride was when a seemingly mute and possibly deaf man got on the bus and tried talking Amy and I in sign language of some sort, which neither of us understood. He kept making the same motions over and over and eventually, when he felt like we weren’t understanding him, pulled a scythe/sickle out of his canvas bag to help explain. As you can imagine, this didn’t help anything. Eventually he put the thing away, the driver seemed to tell him to stop talking, and that seemed to work. we felt bad for the guy but the whole bus seemed a bit pleased when he got off. 

Once in bhaktapur, where the driver and conductor guy (he stands on the side of the car and yells out where the bus is going, and collects money from passenger) were really helpful in directing us where we need to go, we picked up a second and final public bus to nagarkot. It was standing room only by the time we got there but we didn’t want to wait for the next bus to fill up so we hopped on and stood near the front. I already felt like the place was pretty packed (and there were families on the top of the bus) but when the driver got on board, about 12 more men shoved in, smashing everyone so close together. The roads up to nagarkot were winding and narrow so we were very thankful that our driver was so diligent and careful in his driving. We were happy to finally arrive in nagarkot and get off the crowded bus though. 

Amy hunkered down at a cafe while I walked up the street a short way to a hotel to see if they had space for us. As I was walking up I ran into two little girls who followed me a bit of the way, giggling as they went. When we turned around a corner, an adult yelled out to them and they went scurrying, so I thought they’d gotten yelled at for talking to strangers. Then another dude ran past me up the hill and one more was running down the hill. And then the windstorm hit and it all made sense. 

It was crazy, crazy wind. It whipped all the dust and leaves from the road into the air and the trees were thrashing back and forth. It felt like hurricane style winds and I was super happy to see the sign for the hotel just up ahead. I ran and by the time I got to the parking lot the wind had kicked up even more. I was trying to shield myself by huddling next to a building but a guard in a little guard show got my attention and gestured for me to go in the building, which was this weird big coat closet or changing room. I stayed there for about ten minutes before making a run for it up the steps to the reception desk. This place was a nice hotel, something we were splurging on for the night to get a good shower and a little luxury. Inside, you could see and hear the wind but you were totally protected. I knew Amy was hunkered down in the cafe where she was and I also knew she’d be worried about me since she wouldn’t know that I’d made it somewhere safe, but I didn’t want to leave while it was still so windy and the staff seemed to think it would blow over. 

just as I was planning to leave after the wind died down to walk back down to Amy, in she walked, her bag on her back, mine on her front. She’d walked the whole way up to make sure I was okay and didn’t get hurt in the windstorm. I felt a bit like an ass for not getting down there faster…

This was soon forgotten though because that windstorm kicked away all the clouds and for the first time in two weeks the langtang range (part of the Himalayas) came into view. It was pretty darn surreal. The snow-capped, rocky, sky-high peaks were our first glimpse of some of the highest mountains in the world and they didn’t disappoint. Sure, there are pictures of the Himalayas I’ve seen, but seeing it there, 50 miles away, standing to tall and majestic and stark and epic — it was incredible. 

We ogled the view for a long time, had dinner at a local place (abc’s) and then were off to shower, after which we both crashed, hard, with an alarm set for the next morning to see the sunrise over the Himalayas. 

Day 2 Kathmandu: The Monkey Temple

 There’s a place in Kathmandu called the monkey temple (or, more accurately swayambhunath). We were leaving Kathmandu later in the day to head to nagarkot and to make the most of our morning, we woke up around six and walked about an hour to the base of this temple, still an important religious site in the city.  

To get up to the temple you have to walk up a huge, steep stairwell, which you not only share with monkeys at times, but also with people doing their exercises by stair running (like a huge group of local men with the phrase “Rangers” on their backs). From half way up you can start to see the eyes painted at the top of the temple, framed by Nepalese prayer flags, and when you reach the top you’re greeted to an ornate circular temple lined around the edges with prayer wheels, which you spin as you walk clockwise around the structure. I was surprised by the number of locals there, outnumbering the tourists by far, all saying prayers and performing religious rights. While on the one hand it was kind of nice to be at a tourist location actually used by locals, it was also one of those moments where you feel like you’re intruding, capitalizing on the differences in others’ lifestyles. I hope they don’t mind. 

More than outnumbering the people, though, were the monkeys. Oh my gosh the monkeys. You’d think with the place being called monkey temple that we would have expected that there were a lot of monkeys, but I’m not sure anything prepares you for the number of monkeys that were really there.

We were captivated by them. 

Adult monkeys scrambling around and finding food, climbing atop the temple roof and shrines, and babies cutely perched near their moms, trying to get the hang of getting from place to place. They were so used to people they stood feet away from you, nibbling on rice and flowers left by followers, almost posing for pictures. They sat on rooftops picking at each other, had their own social hierarchies (if an unwanted monkey joined a rooftop gang and was unwanted the rooftop gang would bang their fists on the aluminum roof until the monkey hopped away). 

We loved the temple, all of it, from the ornateness and importance, to the monkeys, to the souvenir (Amy and I both got circular carved stones that blew us away). It was incredible and because we went so early we were able to be pretty leisurely and really enjoy ourselves, eating food and drinking tea and watching the monkeys like they were there solely to entertain us. 

Next up was finding a bus to nagarkot…next time. 

Day 1 Kathmandu: walking and cooking

We woke up early today around 6 and decided to get a move on to make the most of our day. 

We were both rather hungry since last night when we arrived at the hostel, the restaurant was closed and the pathway to get to the main street was super dark and we decided to call it safe and skip a real dinner. Instead we shared a bar and a energy streusel and played a few rounds of rummy before we both couldn’t shuffle we were so tired. 

So for breakfast, we headed to this restaurant I found online called revolution cafe. It wasn’t a busy place, or at least it wasn’t busy at 7am when we showed up, the entrance to the restaurant across from a giant pile of brick rubble from the 2015 earthquake. That rubble was probably the biggest indication we saw of the earthquake during our walks today. We sat in the outside patio since the chill of overnight was passing and the sun was attempting to come out through the haze/smog/fog.  The food was delicious — toast and some tofu scramble with tomato sauce and beans and mushrooms. So good. The coffee was also rather delicious paired with the coconut milk they offered me instead of soy milk. 

After breakfast we needed to walk off the food so we started our walking tour in earnest, heading down streets lined with literally hundreds of tour guide companies and dozens of souvenir shops selling bags, metal utensils, miniature ukelele-esque instruments, scarves, jewelry and knock off and real gear outdoor gear. We both wanted to buy everything, when I was surprised by. It probably helped that the salespeople were all generally really reasonable about when to stop pestering you — if you said no they generally listened. Ames ended up with an awesome purse and we both bought scarves. She also got some pants that she now never wants to take off. 

We checked out the garden of dreams, which was cool but a bit underwhelming, and we headed out of there to make an appointment with this company social tours. Social Tours has a bunch of programs they offer from lunch with nuns to weaving your own souvenir to touring the city with a guide but they also do this cooking course where they have a local pair up with tourists and teach them how to made a traditional Nepalese dish! 

Finally we headed back to the hostel, and even though it felt like we’d done a million things to plan what we wanted to do tomorrow. We had a few options: we could head toward pokhara (generally considered an amazing city where people pick up the Annapurna circuit trail from), head to Chitwan for a 2 night 3 day elephant-ride safari jungle tour adventure, or head east first to bhaktapur (a more open, temple filled city) and/or nagarkot (which is known for its Himalayan views, as long as it’s a clear day. 

We had gotten excited about Chitwan after hearing that when you’re riding the elephants, you can get really close to animals like rhinos and leopards, because the other animals don’t seem to notice you perched up there. However, we felt concerned about the animals’ well being and had questions about whether or not we’d be contributing to any cruelty by going on the tour. We’re still not sure, but we did fidb out that there’s generally five people riding each elephant, a guide and four tourists, which is a lot, especially since Amy learned on her other travels that riding on an elephants neck is generally okay, but riding on its back hurts it. There was also the issue of training a wild animal to be domestic. Many reports said that this training often required pain and violence for the elephant, and though there seem to be efforts to train elephants in a more humane way, it was unclear whether that had or hadn’t started happening yet and how much of a difference it would make. Given Amy and I’s feeling about animal rights and cruelty to animals we decided Chitwan was probably not the best choice. 

We also got word from a girl just back from pokhara that the whole city had been pretty socked in with clouds when she’d just been and it wasn’t clear if that was going to change anytime soon.

So, were deciding to go east, to nagarkot, to see if we can see some views of Everest and the Himalayas. Tomorrow it’s supposed to thunderstorm, and the day after visibility in pokhara is supposed to be 46%. We’ll see what that means!

We jaunted off then to explore the area north of Durbar Square, which is like the main center for shops and home to some temples. It was different than I expected. Temples were packed in right next to sales stalls, and stalls lined the narrow streets selling toys and bronze pots and pans, rope and clothes, house cleaning stuff, everything. There were tons of people. I think because of the temples I expected it to be more calm or to have areas of calm, but that definitely didn’t happen. 

Next at our cooking class we learned all about the art of cooking dal bhat. We made rice, mixed vegetables (zucchini (which they call pumpkin) and tomato and potato and onion), a spicy cilantro tomato chili sauce, mustard greens and a simple lentil soup. It was delicious and even though Amy and I had eaten entirely too much at a local place on our way to durbar square, we still managed to eat a full plate in recognition and our and our teacher’s work. The teachers were both women and we really enjoyed getting to talk to them about power outages (which are scheduled and happen every day for about twelve hours at a time) and languages and my fear Of pressure cookers (they make unexpected loud noises…) and she had a good time I think laughing with (?) us while we ate with our hands.  :)

After that it was only 4 but we were totally wiped out. We slept til 9, woke up and went out to eat, came back and now are very happy to just crash crash crash. Ames hasn’t been feeling so hot since our nap — a little sick and voice is gone — so hopefully a nights sleep does the trick. 

Til tomorrow!