My first moment in Nepal, after standing in the visa collection queue for what seemed like hours in the stifling heat, was getting down to baggage collection in the airport. I located our bags, went to grab them, and had them swiftly taken from under my nose by a small, lanky Nepali man, who bundled them onto a rusty trolley and ran off with them. Shocked, my friend and I ran after him, demanding our bags back. By the time we caught up with him at the airport exit a few 100 yards from the baggage collection place, the man was demanding money from us. Stood there with his palm out, we stammered that we (very truthfully) had no money we could give him. Even as we hitched our heavy backpacks onto our shoulders and exited the building into the blazing heat of the midday Nepali sun, the man was still shouting at us. And then we were greeted by hundreds of Nepali people crowding around the entrance to the airport, signs plastered with unknown names. Panic began to set in.
What were we doing?!
Not to alarm anyone of course, but read the following advice, and you should be set for your own travels to this marvellous country!
1: Embrace the religion
The first week we spent living with a family in Kathmandu, receiving intensive Nepali lessons and sightseeing trips to the most beautiful places in the capital. I will never forget the temples and the Buddhist stupas that we saw that week, elaborately decorated with strings of rainbow prayer flags. A trip to one particular stupa, the Bodhnath Stupa, left me with such a feeling of peace that I mentioned it to our Nepali guide. His reply was this:
“It is because Buddha is here always.”
Though I am not religious in the slightest, I felt it could almost be true. Another trip was to the rather sobering Pashupatinath Hindu Temple, where we saw a Hindu funeral. Though it may seem clichéd, it really did feel sacred, and for me it had a much more spiritual element to it than British funerals – merely one example of what you can learn out there about different cultures and religions.
2: Traverse the public transport, just for the experience
After a brilliant week in Kathmandu, it was time for us to move on to Pokhara, the town in which we would be undertaking our volunteer teaching experience. A gruelling 7 hour bus ride around the sides of mountains, along rocky dirt tracks and death drops to the side of you, is certainly an interesting side of Nepal! My travel companion and I could enjoy the truly amazing view – jungle-clad mountains rising up all around us, the trees clinging onto the steep slopes, rivers snaking through the valleys, and shack-like houses built haphazardly into the mountain sides. It was wonderful, despite the bus’ treacherous climb (followed by terrifying descents!) up the rocky, muddy, two-laned dirt tracks!
If I thought that bus ride was bad, it was nothing compared to the 6 hours endured between Pokhara and Chitwan in the south of Nepal. Waiting in the bus park at 6.25am in the morning, hungry, tired and bleary-eyed, we were unprepared for the sight that awaited us when our bus rolled up. Despite the brightly painted exterior, and the wonderful metallic decorations on the interior, compared to the other tourist buses that milled around us ours was a tin shack on wheels. As our luggage was loaded precariously onto the roof rack and strapped down with a single rope, we could not help but laugh. By that point, we had grown accustomed to Nepal and its’ bizarre ways, and we loved it.
So do take public transport, if only to sit in a whirlpool of colours as the bus bounces along so ferociously that your bum flies out of the seat on numerous occasions, leaving you suspended in mid-air. It’s certainly a tale to tell back home!
3: Go to Pokhara
Pokhara is, without doubt, the most beautiful place I have ever been to. The lake, Phewa Tal (‘tal’ being the Nepali word for ‘lake’) is the centre point of the town, and is nestled peacefully in a valley of surrounding, jungle-clad hills. And best of all? The Annapurna Range of the Himalayan Mountains stand tall and proud and glistening white above the lake. The Fishtail can be seen clearly throughout Pokhara, the only virgin Himalayan Mountain remaining and very recognisable from it pyramidal-shape, like a fish tail poking out of water. The town itself is a mish-mash of colours, smells and shop and after shop, selling a multitude of fascinating items. In the four weeks we were there, Pokhara never lost its charm, nor its quaintness. As much as I enjoyed Kathmandu, Pokhara was calmer, cuter, and friendlier. Everybody has time for you in Pokhara, and everybody greets you with wide, genuine smiles.
If you get the chance, don’t just stick to Lakeside (the tourist part of town) either. Go out into the old city, to the winding streets of markets and stalls. The array of smells is intoxicating, and the rows of fresh fruits and vegetables will entice you. My personal favourites are the waist-high sacks of spices, so many spices! Spend a few hours in the old city and you’ll see another side of Nepal, one without tourists and Westerners. A real cultural experience!
4: Learn basic Nepali
Aside from being a really fascinating language to learn, it may just help you get around the less tourist areas of Nepal. Purchase a little guide from Lonely Planet and spend some time with Nepali people to get to know pronunciations. The majority of Nepali people do speak English, and you can get by pretty easily out there, but aside from anything else, it is polite to be able to at least greet them in their own language (Namaste). It is worth it just from the smiles you get! If you are volunteering as an English teacher (which is why I was there), you may find basic Nepali handy if you are living with a local family. The family that I lived with taught me that language really is no barrier – their English, though pretty good for Nepal, was hilarious to listen to, and we had some brilliantly funny misunderstandings at some points, always resulting in a lot of laughter.
5: Abandon all concept of time
Everything in Nepal is “about 15 minutes”. Whether that be popping two doors down to the little shop to stock up on biscuits, taking a taxi into Lakeside, or climbing a mountain, everything is “15 minutes”. We learnt this pretty quickly upon staying with our Nepali family, and equally quickly learnt not to ask anything about time frames. What our lovely Nepali father deemed to be 15 minute walk down from Sarangot hill to the city centre turned out to be a 2 hour trek down a very steep hill in the boiling hot sun. So don’t take “15 minutes” to heart!
6: Learn something new (other than Nepali)
One of the best things I did out there was to learn new things from the Nepali family I stayed with. Not everyone will have that opportunity but there are always other methods of learning. One rather simple thing you could learn from a Nepali person if you were to ask, is how to make Dal Bhat. As the traditional food of Nepal, you should expect to eat it on a fairly regular basis – we had it every single day for dinner and often breakfast the following day too! One day, we asked our Nepali ‘mother’ to teach us, and through the language barrier we were able to write it down and then make it for our family. Though our method could do with a little refinement, it was a lot of fun, it went down pretty well, and is something truly memorable to take home with you.
So the final piece of advice: 7: Expect the Unexpected
From the moment we landed in Kathmandu, were picked up at the airport by two random Nepali men, bundled into a four-wheel drive, and raced off into the chaos that is the road system in Nepal, I think it’s safe to say nothing turned out quite as we expected it! Which is definitely what made it such a fun and interesting trip. Embrace it, go with it and enjoy it!