And somehow the still good-looking pre-Angelina Jolie Brad Pitt from the movie “Seven years in Tibet” plays a major role in my imagination too – even though Tibet is of course on the other side of the Himalayas and not at all the same like Nepal. For hours this naive idea of Nepal keeps me running in the endless traffic jams of India before reaching the nepalese border. Cooler temperatures, a drier climate in the mountains and Buddhist serenity? The completely contrasting design to the honking and stinking trucks, which nearly hit my side panniers several times in this chaotic traffic while sweating in 40 degrees.
After finishing border bureaucracy and looking for the Indian border officer who needs to stamp my passport for over an hour (he was just shopping some food – “Not so many foreigners pass by here whose passports I have to stamp …”) I could kiss the ground of this new country in anticipation. The traffic situation eases within minutes. But wait: the temperature is still 40 degrees and I can’t see any mountain. Where is the Nepal of my dreams?
Prepare yourself for some shocking news: Nepal is not just mountains. And it becomes even more adventurous: My first stop is a national park called „Bardia“. Instead of rough rocks the only thing you will see is deep jungle. In addition maybe some rhinoceroses, elephants and tigers. Besides of me a handful of other individualists have found the way to the remote village of Bardia. They themselves belong to the most adventurous species of travelers: they want to see the real Nepal that is not crowded by other tourists – but keep on complaining about the road conditions and the long and arduous journey from Nepal’s capital Kathmandu. Maybe they are as well a bit disgruntled because they have been walking through the heat of the jungle for days to see a shy tiger without any success. I could not blame them.
As it is the case with many secluded villages in the jungle, only a few seconds after my arrival the electricity and thus also all the fans which at least provided a little relief from the heat die. I ask the host of the hostel when they expect a solution for the electricity problem. “Tomorrow or the day after,” he replies. “If it rains more, then maybe only in a week.” At that moment I decide that a night in the jungle is more than enough for a tortured sweaty soul like mine. The next day I am off before the sun rises to finally make my ways to the promising mountains.
Mountains, Buddha, Everest?
Just before I reach the village of Tansen my anticipation gets a little damper again. Thanks to last night’s rain a few tons of earth have loosened, blocking now the only road into my mountain paradise. Two diggers already try to clear the way – three hours later they are at least successful enough to make me with some other small motorcyclists push through. When I reach Tansen I finally can breathe again. It has 15 degrees less than in the lowlands. “From now on Nepal will be just as you imagined it,” I tell myself encouragingly. And go to bed with a freshly renewed anticipation.
The next morning my breakfast almost gets stuck in my throat. The friendly, somewhat wacky owner of the City View Guesthouse in Tansen has been standing in the door for quite some time and is talking to two other guests in the hallway – about the weather and this years rainy season that lasts much longer than normally. I decide rather to devote myself passionately to my omelette than listening to their conversation any longer.
So he makes me jump when he turns around abruptly and addresses me. “You’ve been very lucky, girl!” I look at him questioningly. “Lucky? Why? “He looks at me as if I were a bit dumb. “Well, because of the landslide.” „Yeah, you are right. I would not have liked to turn around and spend another night in the hot flatland,” I reply immediately. My host looks at me irritated. “I’m talking about the second big landslide that has buried an killed two people only 15 minutes after the road was released.” This is when the omelette just decides to sit in my throat for a little longer. I have to drink a really large sip of water to rinse it down.
My host seems to be an expert of the local streets – or at least has a great interest in local gossip – so I talk to him about my planned route for the next days in the evening. From Tansen I want to go to a mountain village called Muktinath and finally hit the gravel roads of the Himalayas. I ask him if he can find out something about the road conditions after the recent rainfalls so that I can calculate my time better.
After two phone calls with some friends he delivers the next bad news. The road will be completely impassable for the next two days. „There is no chance it opens again tomorrow?” I ask looking at him hopefully. “Girl, I think you have tested your luck enough for now. Don’t go there. Find another destination. These unpaved roads … after all this rain they are dangerous and nobody who does not have to drive them will do so at the moment.“ Hesitantly I admit that he might be right – but I am still not ready to give up on my dream of the Nepalese Himalayan yet.
Making new plans
If someone would ask me what my most stereotypical German characteristic is, I would answer that I like to make plans. This does not mean that I have to book a hotel for every night, need to know in advance what to eat for lunch or the route of my trip in all details. But if I plan something then it gives me great pleasure if this plan also works. Accordingly, I can not help myself but carrying a latent disappointment with me when I reach the main arteries of tourism in Nepal and the cities of Pokhara and Kathmandu.
I find the turmoil and the harsh and obtrusive behavior of the vendors who try to sell fake cashmere and North Face products as tiring as inappropriate – also because it is an extreme contrast to the otherwise so gentle, calm and thoughtful spirit of the Nepali population.
In the following days I am highly advised by all the locals I ask not to take any of the roads that lead deeper into the Himalayan mountains. And all my research attempts turn out into nothing because I needed to have much more time for a further detour. But due to my visa for Myanmar getting more days than initially planned is simply not possible.
When I leave Kathmandu I finally give up on seeing the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayan mountains any closer than a glimpse in the distance on the horizon. And even this desire seems to be denied because the high mountain ranges hide into a cover of clouds since I reached the region.
Lessons in Bahktapur
Just a few kilometers from Kathmandu I spend two days in the historic old town of Bahktapur – here you can at least experience temples and buildings like in a Nepal picture book. The owner of the hotel in which I stay welcomes me so kindly that I can not help but tell him about my misery.
I tell him about my failed attempts to get into the mountains and about my feeling that I am only a stupid tourist here in Nepal, without getting any access to the heart of the country. When I finish my disappointed monologue he thinks about my words for a short moment and then shakes his head. “You know, the mountains are tempting and spectacular. Of course the snow-covered eight thousand meter high mountain peaks look attracting. Because of them all the tourists visit Nepal. The mountains drive the biggest part of our tourist-industry. The Himalaya is of course a part of Nepal – but only a very small one. You’ve seen Nepal’s heart for quite a while now but your eyes and your soul have been so focused on the mountains at the horizon, that you were too distracted to hear it beat.”
The heart of Nepal
When I continue the next day his words still sound in my ear. Again and again I will think of them the next weeks and months. Yes, I was only focused on seeing the Nepal I wanted to see. And I nearly made the worst beginner-traveler mistake of all: to be blind for all the extraordinary things this country has to offer because of being to focused on all the attractions that are listed in the guidebooks. In all my disappointment I almost forgot my joy when admiring the many small, colorful and lovingly tended wooden houses in which dog, holy cow and cock say good night to each other. I nearly forgot about the bliss when communicating with the people from the countless small villages in the lowland on the way who maybe never have seen a western tourist before. And I nearly forgot about all their encouraging, astonishing, curious smiles, that are worth more than a stay close to another high mountain.
When I leave Bahktapur early in the morning, the cloud-cover finally releases the mountains and frees the view on the snow-white, shining peaks on the distant horizon. Even before the low-hanging fog can hide this view again, I turn around and get on my bike.
No, I don’t need to look back to those mountains. Right in front of me is the real Nepal that you cannot find in any travel catalogue yet. And yes, it is dirtier, poorer and so much less alpine than I had imagined. But at the same time so heartily and magnanimously that I can still learn a lot from this country. The only thing that I still miss somehow is pre-Angelina Jolie Brad Pitt coming around the next corner…
Kathmandu: the start and end for just about anyone visiting Nepal by airplane. Thamel is the tourist and backpacker hub of the city – bars, restaurants and shops line up in a turbulent succession. Those who want to stay fit can take part in yoga and pilates classes at Mandala and Pranamaya studio. The teachers are above average.
Pokhara: Located next to Phewa Lake, Pokhara is a slightly quieter alternative to Kathmandu and the starting point for many trekking routes. A popular excursion destination is the peace pagoda, which is reached after a ride over the lake and a steep 45-minute climb.
Bhaktapur: The old town of Bhaktapur with its historic temples is spectacular, the best hotel is without a doubt Peacock Guesthouse. The rooms around the traditional courtyard can be reached via small wooden stairs and exude the atmosphere of the original Nepal. At the same time the friendly host and his wife offer small meals and perhaps the best coffee Nepals in the cafe on the ground floor, while you can watch craftsmen and their production of traditional wood carvings.
Trekking: The tourism industry in Nepal lives of climbing and hiking. Beginners can do the two-week trip to the Mount Everest Basecamp, but can also choose shorter and more customizable routes like the Annapurna Circle.
Jungle: With Chitwan and Bardia, Nepal offers two jungle national parks, where you can see different wild animals. Chitwan is easy to reach from the capital Kathmandu, Bardia is said to be the more remote and ecological.
Luxury: The Dwarika’s Resort in Dhulikhel offers a good view of the snow-capped Himalayan peaks. The rooms are located in small buildings, have private roof terraces or gardens. Here, a holistic concept is practiced: from yoga courses, through daily meditation to eating only local and seasonal ingredients in the restaurants.