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[Outbound]: Nepal

Ukulele-playing hippies smoking weed on the streets, buses teetering on mountain highways, everybody chilling at temples -- yup, it's Nepal.
Jun 18, 2013 | 07:32 Tue
Outbound: Outbound is SmartShanghai's travel features series dedicated to fascinating and wonderful places, nearby and far-flung, around China and sometimes not.

Just back from Nepal, I now bring back tales of the once-forbidden mountain kingdom so that we Shanghai glitterati can all blitzkrieg the place and drop some hard-earned rmbs like it ain’t nuthin’ but a shower of pink confetti.

Most people have only heard of Kathmandu and Mt. Everest, but Nepal has tons of interesting towns, plus a whole lot of glorious mountainous terrain to conquer. In spite of Nepal’s reputation as a developing country, the whole place is extremely tourist friendly. The majority of natives speak English pretty well, and, since the hippies came swarming in during the 60s, the people there are pretty used to having non-Nepali folk around.

If you’re by plane to Nepal, you have to go through Kathmandu because the Tribhuvan Airport is the country’s only international airport. Looking over my notes from the trip, I described Tribhuvan as looking like “a run-down ranch-style home from the 1950s”. The entire thing can probably fit in one of the hallways of Hongqiao railway station.

Kathmandu (加德满都)

Kathmandu’s equivalent of Shanghai’s former French Concession is Thamel district, a magical place where you can find wood-fire pizza, a solid espresso, and all the kitschy knick-knacks you can stuff into your bag. Not exactly what you might be expecting to see in Nepal, but it’s a nice way to dip your toes in the water.

Perhaps start by making your way down to one of the Durbar Squares in Kathmandu, either in the city center or in another district named Patan, for more Buddhist and Hindu temples than you’ll ever see again in your life. Temples in Nepal are really a part of everyday life: old men, Nepali ayis, groups of schoolchildren and everyone else is on, in, around, under or nestled in-between all these temples that are 800 years old.

When it comes to buying trinkets and stuff, negotiating is a must. I noticed that most of the carpet and red-Buddha-statue sellers are pretty reasonable once you get to jawin’ with them. My guess is that these sellers don’t want to get a bad reputation since a lot of the people here depend on tourism dollars, but I’m just spitballing here. And for adventurists, there are quite a few fairly reputable tourist agencies that will help you book your paragliding/mountain climbing/white water rafting trip out in the brush.

On the food scene, Nepali cuisine has a good variety of flavors and textures. In general, the food is sort of like Indian food with a bit of Tibetan influence. This means lots of curries, dhal baat (lentils) and paneer (kind of like cottage cheese). The real winners are the Golbhenda ko achar, pickled tomatoes, and momo, which is essentially a Chinese jiao zi. Also like in India, they don’t eat beef here, so they substitute it with water buffalo meat, which, fun fact, is called carabeef.

Pokhara (博卡拉)

If Kathmandu is like Shanghai -- noisy, crowded, and polluted -- then Pokhara is like Xiamen –- relaxing and full of places to swim and do outdoor sports. There’s a nice lake where you can rent a rowboat or just dive straight into its placid face. It’s a particularly scenic place: when the weather is clear in Pokhara, around autumn time, you can even see the imposing Himalayas, specifically the Annapurna range, rise and stretch in the distance. You can also go hiking in the foothills or go hang gliding to get a better view of everything on days when the weather is a bit hazy.

Up north of town is the hippie district of Pokhara, where the gentle fragrances of weed and body odor drift softly and inevitably into your nostrils. Oh and look, there’s another stoned French dude strumming a ukulele.

All in all Pokhara’s a great place to visit, but getting there can be pretty hairy. You really only have two options. You can fly from Kathmandu, but the Pokhara airport looks like a sad little car impound lot, so I axed that idea. Your other option would be to take the bus from Kathmandu, which really isn’t all that reassuring either, because the “highway” winds through the mountains and there’s a disturbing lack of guard rails to keep us all from falling thousands of feet below. Even though the distance is only about 200 kilometers, the bus will take a good 6 to 7 hours -- provided your bus doesn’t break down -- due to road conditions and traffic jams.

Where to Stay:

In Kathmandu, any place in Thamel will do fine as a base of operations. They all speak English and some even speak Chinese. They’re all pretty much the same. Run-of-the-mill cheap hotel beds, dubious bathrooms. All cost about 50-60rmb a night for basic accommodations. There were some more upscale hotels somewhere in Kathmandu, but I never got around to finding those.

In Pokhara, I went with Hotel Barahi in Lakeside district. It can be a little more expensive – 400rmb and up a night -- but the quality far surpasses the price. It’s walled off, so it is considerably less noisy than any other place, even during rush hour traffic. The rooms are nice and clean and glorious hot water rains down from the showerhead. There’s a swimming pool, and cultural shows every night, and their breakfast buffet has some damn tasty cheese on offer.

Getting There:

The first, and easiest, is just taking a flight through a southern Chinese city, like Kunming, to Kathmandu. There are no direct flights from Shanghai to Nepal, so you’ll probably be spending the night in one of those cities before you actually make it to Kathmandu.

I took a 3 hour flight to Kunming, stayed the night, then flew from Kunming to Kathmandu in about two and a half hours. This round trip ticket set me back about 3500rmb, but I just checked Ctrip and edreams it looks like round trip tickets are usually about 2500-3000rmb, so clearly I didn’t know what the hell I was doing when I booked mine.

Your second option would be to hoof it through the Tibetan Plateau, which would of course mean getting to Tibet first -- certainly no small feat of its own. You’d start from Lhasa on the totally aptly named China-Nepal Friendship Highway, then choose from bussing it or renting a car, motorcycle or yak and taking it to the Nepali border town of Kodari. Or, if you’ve got the moxie, you can hike up and over Mt. Everest.

Visa Stuff:

It’s pretty easy to get a visa to Nepal. First off, the trip to the Nepal consulate office was... dare I say -- peaceful. There was almost no one there. All you have to do is skip up to the counter, sign some paper work, drop your passport and 250rmb for a ten day visa (prices are higher for longer stays, upwards of 600rmb) and that's it. Come back in a week for pick up and you’re set.

Alternatively, citizens of most countries are eligible to get a tourist visa upon arrival at the airport in Kathmandu. From what I noticed, this seemed a little time consuming, but it didn’t seem to be too difficult to obtain for most of the tourists. If you want to be safe though, it’s easier just to pick it up in Shanghai.


All photos taken by Bo Brennan.