Here’s another “10 Things…” post. As usual, this is not meant to be a top 10 list or anything like that, rather it is 10-ish random things, some good/bad/neutral, that we experienced during our time in a particular country or region that we found interesting or unique. We write this post together after we leave a place as a way of summarizing our experience.
We spent the last two and half months in Nepal, while Chiara was volunteering at Build Change. It was an incredibly enriching experience getting to know a country and its people more intimately, and not having to move around so much. There are so many great memories of our time in Nepal, that it would be impossible to encompass everything in one blog post. But for now, we’ll do our best to highlight some things that stood out to us in this 10 Things… post.
1. Dhal Bhat and Momo
Dal Bhat and Momo are two of the most popular foods in Nepal, and we sure ate a lot of both!
Dal Bhat, which literally translates to “lentils and rice”, is the most commonly eaten food in all of Nepal. It consists of plain rice, lentil soup, vegetable curry, and spicy pickles.
Dal Bhat is eaten daily, if not multiple times per day, by most Nepali people, and it is the true national dish. There is a popular saying in Nepal, which can be seen printed on t-shirts, “Dal Bhat Power, 24 Hour”, because the healthy, filling, vegetarian fare keeps you going all day.
Tarick’s favorite part is that Dal Bhat is all-you-can-eat! As soon as you get low on anything, the waiter will come by to top you off with more rice, dal, curry, etc. until you are completely stuffed.
Momo are not so much a meal as they are a delicious snack. Momo are dumplings filled with vegetables, chicken, or buff (buffalo meat). They can be fried or steamed, and come with a variety of dipping sauces. You can find momo practically everywhere, and we enjoyed eating them often. They are especially good as an appetizer or a happy hour snack along with a cold beer.
2. Namaste and Head Nodding
Namaste: Is the typical Hindu way of greeting someone or saying goodbye, which you may have heard in your yoga class. Namaste is usually spoken with your palms pressed together in prayer and a slight bow. It translates to, “I bow to the divine in you”, which is pretty deep for such a common greeting.
Head nod: Another interesting element of communication in Nepal is the “head nod”. We are used to an up-and-down head nod meaning “yes” and a side-to-side shake meaning “no”. In Nepal, there’s a sort of in-between “head bobble” (side-to-side like a metronome) that means “OK” or “I understand/acknowledge what you said”. When we first arrived in Nepal, we had several confusing interactions before understanding the meaning, because sometimes it looks like people are saying “no”. We were quite relieved when we realized that we weren’t being constantly denied, but rather people were telling us, “sure why not”!
(Both of these are common in India, too, but we went to Nepal first so it counts for this 10 Things list!)
While it’s impossible to describe the complexity of religion in Nepal in this short segment, it’s also impossible not to mention it. Spirituality is present in every direction you look in Nepal. There are temples and shrines all over, and religion is interwoven into the daily routine.
Most people in Nepal are Hindu, but there is also a significant percentage of Buddhists. Interestingly, the line between Buddhism and Hinduism can be blurry in Nepal, with some traditions being shared by both religions.
Hinduism has a large pantheon of gods/goddesses, with different significance attributed to each one. There are countless shrines in Nepal dedicated to the various deities. It feels as though each city block has at least one shrine where offerings and prayers are given daily.
Everybody loves Ganesh
Cows are considered sacred in Hinduism. In cities they are allowed to roam freely, which makes for some interesting traffic situations.
4. Tibetan Prayer Flags and Wheels
Something you can’t help notice while in Nepal, particularly if you are trekking in areas near the Tibetan border, is the presence of Buddhist temples, prayer flags, and prayer wheels.
Prayer flags come in a string of five colors: blue, white, red, green, yellow, and represent the five elements. On the flags themselves, prayers and mantras are written, along with the iconic horse symbol. It is believed that as the flags fray and disintegrate over time, their threads are carried off into the wind, where their blessings and prayers can be spread across the land.
The prayer wheel is another important Buddhist symbol. It consists of a metal cylinder, sometimes small, sometimes quite large, inscribed with the mantra, “Om Mani Padme Hum” in Nepali. The large wheel is usually placed at the center of a temple, where people can turn the wheel while walking in a clockwise manner and chanting mantras.
Sometimes you will see many small wheels set into a stone wall, which is called a “Mani Wall“. As you walk along the side of the wall — always to the left — you can spin the wheels with your hands to receive the benefit of the prayers. Similar to the prayer flags, it is believed that the spinning prayers have the ability to emanate through the world and touch all living beings, and that you can receive the benefits just by standing near one!
The roads in Nepal are in rough shape. While the country is still recovering from the 2015 earthquake, which damaged a lot of infrastructure, that only accounts for part of the problem. The other problems include: too much traffic, yearly monsoon rains, frequent landslides, other natural disasters, and not enough road maintenance. Even a relatively short journey of under 100 km (60 mi), can take over four hours. The highway between Kathmandu and Pokhara (the second largest city) is in relatively good condition, as is the East-West Highway in the Terai, but if you are planning on trekking anywhere Nepal, you will almost certainly experience some pretty sketchy roads while riding in a bus or jeep.
Outside of the main urban areas mentioned above, most roads in Nepal are unpaved. If you are lucky, there will be some rock thrown down to keep the road from washing away too quickly. Sometimes the road is barely wide enough for a bus, and there is a sheer 200 meter drop off the side of the road with no barrier. Landslides can occur without warning, and we have taken several buses that were stopped for multiple hours while we waited for someone to arrive with a bulldozer and clean up the road so we could pass. Riding along the bumpy dirt roads can be enough to throw your back out, and after many hours on the bus you might want to see your chiropractor.
The good news is: wherever you need to go in Nepal, there is a cheap, semi-reliable mode of transportation that can take you right to your trekking trail-head. Also, the bus drivers and their team of conductors are usually quite skilled at navigating the treacherous roads. They are always on the lookout for unsafe conditions; sometimes one of them will even walk along in front of the bus to inspect the condition of the road. We haven’t actually researched how often a bus ends up at the bottom of a ravine, and it’s one of those things it’s best not to think about too much…
6. Trekking in the Himalayas
Trekking is by far the number one tourist attraction in Nepal. The Himalayan Range stretches across the entire northern border of the country, and each year thousands of people from all over the world flock to Nepal to trek around Everest, the Annapurnas, and Langtang.
Treks can either be independently organized (self-guided) or done with a professional guide and, optionally, porters to carry your things. Most treks fall into one of three categories:
- Teahouse Treks
- Camping Treks
- Mountain Climbing
Teahouse trekking is the most comfortable way to experience the Himalayas. You can spend the day hiking through the mountains and stop for the night in a lodge with hot food, a fire, decent beds, and sometimes even hot showers. Along the trail you will see lodges every few kilometers, and you can always stop for tea or a hot lunch should you desire it. You only need to know your route and carry a small pack with clothing and water for the day.
We thoroughly enjoyed the teahouse lifestyle in Nepal. In the evenings we would have dinner in a cozy, fire-warmed dining room, and play cards or chat with fellow trekkers. We ended up making many friends along the trail that we have stayed in touch with since.
Camping treks are for the more hardcore mountain adventurist. With this type of trekking you must carry all your camping gear, tents, sleeping bags, cooking equipment, etc. with you. Because you are carrying all your gear, it enables you to get off the beaten path and see some pristine mountain landscapes. Usually this type of trekking is done with a guided group because the remote destinations and below-freezing temperatures can be dangerous.
Mountain climbing, as the name implies, involves climbing to the peak of a mountain. These treks are quite perilous, and are only undertaken by skilled mountaineers. The yearly expeditions to the summit of Mount Everest fall into this category, but there are many other popular peaks to climb as well.
For obvious reasons, we stuck to teahouse trekking in Nepal, as most visitors to Nepal do. In April, Tarick went trekking in Langtang Valley, and in May we both did the Annapurna Circuit. Click the links to see our previous blog posts on those treks.
7. Living in Nepal
The warm smiles, friendly demeanor, and hospitable nature of the Nepali people made our two and a half months truly unforgettable. Wherever we traveled throughout the country, it felt like home. People on the street were always eager to offer directions or advice, and it really felt like most people had our best interests at heart. While trekking, the lodge owners made us feel like family. At restaurants, the staff is always eager to please and make sure we have had enough to eat. Even riding on the bus, we felt taken under the care of the bus driver, who’s primary goal was to get us safely to our destination. Chiara’s co-workers were also very welcoming and kind, and we were sad to part ways after only a few months.
It took a few weeks to understand how “the system” worked in regards to transport, taxis, restaurants, accommodation, etc. But, once we pushed past the initial confusion, and started getting on the Nepali-wavelength, everything clicked into place. Things might not run on-time, or work out exactly as you thought, but as long as you remain flexible and relaxed, the system makes sense (sort of). By the end of our trip we were traveling worry-free across the country, hopping on random buses, eating dal bhat from local dives, having tea at roadside stalls, and for the most part always ending up where we needed to go.
8. 2015 Earthquake
The Himalayas are formed by the Indian tectonic plate being pushed under the Eurasian plate. This tectonic movement creates the world’s tallest mountains and makes Nepal one of the most seismically active regions in the world.
At around noon on April 25, 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake occurred 80 km (50 mi) from Kathmandu. It was the largest earthquake in Nepal since 1934, and 9000 people are estimated to have died. Needless to say, many more were injured, and it had a devastating effect on the economy. Generally, rural areas experienced more damage than urban areas, due to the construction methods used. New urban buildings generally performed adequately, but many historical monuments collapsed and older parts of the cities were severely damaged. As is typical for large earthquakes, there were many aftershocks, including a 7.3 magnitude aftershock on May 12, 2015, which resulted in more deaths and further destruction.
Four years later, the effects of the earthquake are still apparent. In rural areas, partially collapsed buildings are scattered throughout villages, and many people continue to live in them or makeshift housing. In historic urban neighborhoods, braces prop up buildings that ominously bulge outward. People vividly remember where they were on the day of the earthquake, and how terrified they felt during it and the weeks and months of aftershocks that followed.
However, more common than signs of the earthquake’s damage are signs of the country rebuilding. All over the area affected by the earthquake, new buildings are being built, roads are being repaired, and historic buildings are being reconstructed.
9. Durbar Squares
Each of the three main cities of the Kathmandu Valley (Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur) have a well-preserved old palace area called Durbar Square. They are located centrally in each cities, and their historic legacy and beautiful Newari architecture make them feel like the heart of each city.
Though the three cities are close to each other — Kathmandu has even expanded all the way to Patan — they were once separate kingdoms with separate rulers. The squares contain important temples, royal buildings, and plazas which mostly date from the 17th and 18th centuries.
Each city has a Kumari, a girl selected as a toddler to serve as a “living goddess” until she reaches puberty, who lives in the city’s Durbar Square. The squares also serve as a location for many festivals during the year.
All three Durbar Squares are UNESCO World Heritage sites, and all three were significantly damaged in the 2015 earthquake.
10. Weed (Cannabis)
We’ll end on a light note, which is that weed (cannabis) grows all over Nepal! The plant can be seen growing harmlessly by the side of the road or in the wilderness while trekking. Local authorities don’t seem to notice it or care. Some people use it to make hemp or clothing and, in our limited experience, we didn’t see many people smoking it.
Farewell Nepal, We Will Miss You!
We were sad to leave Nepal, but it also feels good to get back on the road. We have since continued our adventures to India where we are spending three weeks touring Delhi, Punjab, Rajastan, and Mumbai. More to come on that soon!