Our hotel was found using Trip Advisor and was a four-star.  It was a lovely place with lots of gorgeous, authentic Hindu artwork and a fabulous rooftop restaurant deck where guests were served an enormous breakfast and delicious hot chicken tikka at night.  For a moment, you forgot that just outside your hotel window was how the “older half” live (or quite frankly, most of the world).  Directly outside the lovely confines of our hotel, the contrast of luxury and poverty in India was shocking.   A tent (plastic tarp) community lived right out on the side of the road, within the heaps of dirt and garbage and surrounded by the continual loud, polluting traffic that whizzed by 24/7.  Of course there was no running water and no electricity.  The people could be seen cooking up their meals over an open fire of burning trash.  Sadly, this is reality in India, along with the continual garbage thrown EVERYWHERE alongside the roads, dirt sidewalks and “highways”.   I found it also quite sad to see all the livestock, mainly cows who are sacred in India, living right in the middle of the roads eating off the endless piles of garbage. 

Reality awaits right out our hotel window…….

India:

Worth a Read……

White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga

“Midnight’s Children”  by Salman Rushdie

“Untouchable” by Mulk Raj Anand

 

 IS IT SAFE? 

Although Nepal is on the US Government Travel Warning list, that did not stop me from going.   There have been some Maoist uprising in the past that have literally shut down Kathmandu, however, things have settled down recently (especially since the end of Nepal’s 10-year People’s War in 2008) and the Nepali government is hugely promoting foreign visitors (2011 is the being advertised as The Year of Nepal).  I was a little nervous about the safety situation so I did my homework and talked to a lot of other people who have visited Nepal.  I heard over and over again that it was fine and remembered that I have probably been to less safe places before (such as interior Mexico, Peru and South Africa). While there, we heard over and over again the common acronym for Nepal = Never Ending Peace and Love.  I never felt threatened and in fact felt very comfortable with the kind, docile Nepali people.

In my opinion, probably the scariest thing about Nepal was the transportation by road and by air.  The roads are poorly maintained and the driving is insane, just like India.  Given Nepal’s mountainous geography, only small (and very old) planes can be flown into many of the airports such as Lukla in Everest region and Jomson near the Annapurna.  Most of the flying is down through the valleys and weather can change quickly.  Lukla has experienced the highest share of crashes and is considered one of the most dangerous airports in Nepal, however, it is the easiest, fastest way of getting to Everest.   So you have to often balance safety versus the odds.  Driving to some of these remote places is probably much more dangerous than flying, that is for sure.

I have flown a lot in my life, however, I still am fearful of small planes and had worried a lot about the internal flights.  The flight at the end of our trek from Jomson to Pokhara was NUTS but I survived.  We flew at low altitudes (@ 10,000 feet) on an ancient looking plane, through the valley of the mountains which rose over 15,000 feet above our plane.  The entire time I held on tight to my Buddhist prayer beads that I got along the trek in Manang from a 95-year-old monk, and somehow tried to feel safe.  Twenty-five minutes later, after feeling like I was in some kind of Indiana Jones movie, we landed safely in Pokhara and it felt nice to have my feet on the ground again, safe and sound.

Here are some pictures of the crazy flight:

Inside our 14 person plane.  It didn’t feel safe yet the flight was surprisingly smooth.  We flew along the riverbed between the 25,000 foot mountains at an altitude of only 10,000 feet (barely over the trees!).  We even had our own flight attendant.

Not the best picture, but you get the point!  View directly outside plane window….the mountains are a little too close for comfort!

The Trials and Tribulations of Transportation in a Third-World Country

Rajan, the owner of Earthbound Expeditions (who organized our trek) met us at the hotel in Kathmandu upon arrival and laid down the details of our trek.   He was amazingly thorough and very personable, giving us a customized trip and top-notch service.  The drive from Kathmandu to the Besi Sahar, the start of the Annapurna trek is “supposed” to take 4-5 hours.   We were scheduled to take the $5 per person tourist bus the next day.   However, Rajan mentioned, kind-of as an afterthought, the other more expensive option.  For $125, we could hire a private driver to bring us, our guide and our porter to the start of the trek in a Land Rover.  For Americans, this was a no-brainer yet for most Nepali people $125 was not an option given that the average salary is less than $2 a day.  For them $125 is a lot of money.

We opted for the driver and this ended up being a very good idea and worth every penny.  Having never been to Nepal, we had no idea the dire, dangerous situation of the roads or the incredible amount of traffic.  Leaving Kathmandu, there is only one highway out and it has only two lines, one per direction.  Thus the drive is notorious for huge traffic jams, which we instantly experienced.  We moved out of Kathmandu at a snail’s pace, being surrounded by three-wheeled carts, motorbikes carrying entire families, buses (with people riding on the top, out the sides and holding on the back), bicycles and rickshaws.  Plus there was the usual amount of cows living in the streets and other livestock.

Apparently it was a holiday week in Nepal and everyone was returning home on the one and only route to their villages.  As we drove out of the congested, polluted city, the traffic somehow managed to go, but in no order whatsoever.  We arrived outside of the city and into the immense, lovely green Kathmandu Valley and finally got a visual of our situation.  One look at the rows and rows of traffic dwindling down the curvy, windy roads of the valley made me realize that this was going to be yet another long day (it was only our third day out of the States and the first two were spent flying).  Instead of 4-5 hours, it ended up being 9 long hours of hell.  The traffic was jammed up all the way the mountain on each side and the drivers had to do their best to move around all the old, broken down cars and trucks on the narrow, mountainous road.  Feeling quite restless, at one point, my father, our guide and I all got out of the car and actually walked a few hours.  It was faster than driving however the pollution was intense and the road conditions were dangerous.  I actually twisted my ankle an hour into the walk (what bad luck at the start of a 100-mile hike) and it swelled madly.  I kept walking since there was nowhere else to go.  (Thankfully the swelling stopped and I was fully recovered in two days!  I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to come all this way and have to go back!).

When we finally arrived in Besi Sari, we were utterly exhausted, dehydrated and famished.  We were also behind a day in trekking that would have to be made up.  Here are some great photos of that daunting drive from hell:

Leaving Kathmandu:

One of my favorite site:  The eye-catching,crazily decorated trucks.  Not only were they colorful and decorated to the max, their horns were hilarious sounding and used often.

A common site:  How people get from place to place in Nepal when cars are expensive.  Any way works…even on top of the bus!

This is why it takes so long.  What happens, as often does, when a truck or car breaks down and you have to try to pass?  A huge traffic jam.

The road conditions were pitiful.  At points the road was washed away by landslides or there were big huge potholes.  No wonder all the breakdowns!

When all else fails, walk.

Or ride…..

Yet we were rewarded by all the lovely views of the countryside and what was to come.

And, the beautiful smiles of the children dressed in their school uniforms, waving at us joyfully and yelling out “namaste”.

 

Yet, the first sight of the mighty Himalayas in the distance instantly calmed us and made our frustrations disappear. 

Finally, we were in the countryside and traffic moved!

And we drove alongside villagers going about their daily business.