South Asia

India

Agra

Agra-3

We spent 3 days in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, and that was 3 too many. Besides the Taj Mahal, there really isn’t too much else to do. If we did it over we would’ve only spent a night, or even just done a daytrip from Delhi. Sadly, Agra felt like the most rundown city in India we visited. After reading other people’s blogs as well, it looks like lots of people have the same opinion. The hostel we stayed at was also the worst we’d seen in our entire trip so far. Paying less than $10 a night, you might think ‘well you shouldn’t expect it to be nice.’ That saying was also posted on the walls of the hostel, telling us not to expect luxury and to be happy with what it was. Well…we’ve stayed at a good number of hostels so far that have been around the same price point and none where we felt we might catch something until we got to Agra. The only plus side was that the owner was nice enough, and that we were within walking distance of the Taj Mahal.

We had read in in multiple blogs that the line to get into the Taj Mahal starts building at 6am and to get there as early as possible. We got there around 8ish and there was no line – probably since it was off season. There were more people inside but still not a ton. The Taj Mahal itself was pretty spectacular. We had been looking up the history of it and seeing it in person and knowing it was built in between 1631 and 1648 was pretty amazing to see. It was built by order of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favorite wife. The grounds were huge and the actual Taj Mahal was even bigger than we imagined up close. We walked around for a while seeing the tomb from different angles and being stopped and asked to take pictures with other Indian tourists. We left when we couldn’t stand the heat anymore but it was definitely worth seeing.

On our last night, we ventured out to find a restaurant that looked cute and had good reviews. They served burgers and sandwiches and we figured it would be nice to get something different from the usual Indian food we’d been constantly eating. After wandering down countless side roads (maps.me on our phone always seems to lead us down strange alleys) we got to the main road that the restaurant was on. Since sidewalks are basically nonexistent in India, we continued forward along the dirt beside the pavement. After a few minutes, the winds started picking up and blowing dust into our faces. We could barely see anything and really weren’t sure what to do from there. To make it worse, it was getting dark and we began to feel raindrops as well. Our map told us that the restaurant was somewhere close, so with nowhere to go but forward, we trekked onwards. After a few minutes of struggling forwards, we glanced across the road and saw the sign for the restaurant beckoning us over. We crossed the street, dodging cars, and ran into the restaurant. After ordering, it started storming heavily, and the power promptly went out. Thankfully, after it eventually came back on we were able to get dinner at least. We hung out there until the rain let up, and thankfully found a tuk tuk driver to take us back to the hostel.

Overall, India was an intense experience that was far different from anywhere we’ve been (aside from Nepal, which was good preparation for it). It was dirty, loud, and chaotic. There were scores of animals wandering around the streets (dogs, cats, goats, cows, monkeys) and defecating where they pleased, and usually eating out of trash bags lining the streets. There were loads of people out to make a buck off of foreigners who didn’t know the value of what they were paying for. It seemed like everyone was a salesman and had a brother, sister, father, mother, uncle with a store or hostel they’d like us to go to. And of course…the temperature. We were told India only has a few; hot, hotter, and hottest. Unfortunately, we really only experienced the “hotter” and “hottest”. With it regularly going up to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, we were almost forced to spend afternoons in our hostel room (usually with a fan; no A/C) trying to keep from overheating. This, coupled with the haze of pollution over each city, made spending long periods of time outside difficult. By the time we got to Agra, and then Delhi, we were exhausted and ready to leave. Realistically April/May wasn’t the best time to visit, but it fit with our timeline and places were less crowded since it was the off season.

All that being said, India was also a beautiful country with loads to see, amazing food, and kind people. All of the palaces and forts were saw were amazing, and worth dealing with the heat. The food was great as well, no matter where we went we had good meals. Chana masala, aloo ghobi, and sev puri are new favorites! People would come up to us here more than any other place just to say hello and chat for a bit. Schoolchildren would wave to us on the streets, or out of windows, or passing by on motorbikes. While some of them may have only been trying to sell us something, we met loads of friendly people on the streets that wanted nothing more than to have a small conversation or practice their English. Everyone at the guesthouses we stayed at were also instrumental in figuring out the railway and bus system, as well as giving us general insight on India. Looking back now after having moved on, we remember our time there fondly and are happy to have experienced it. While it’s not on the top of our list of places to go again, we are glad we went.

India

Jaipur

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Jaipur is known as the pink city, and we could see why right away. Pretty much every building in the old town was the same orange/pink color. Our first day there we went to see the City Palace, and we were easily able to get a tuk tuk driver right outside our guest house to take us to the palace. He offered to take us to the other main attractions around the city but we just wanted to do the palace today and decided to do the tour tomorrow. The palace is a popular tourist attraction and we were excited to see it. The whole thing was so pretty and had lots of good spots for pictures. It was interesting seeing how palaces differed from city to city and seeing what made them unique. We walked around the palace for a while and then went to see the Hawa Mahal, or ‘Palace of the Winds’, which was right up the street. It was built in 1799 and was originally intended to allow royal ladies to be able to observe everyday life in the street below without being seen. Back then, they had to obey the strict rules of ‘purdah’ which forbade them from being seen in public without their face being covered. We walked through the whole building and the top had amazing views of the city; we could really see how pink everything was.

We met our tuk tuk driver early the next morning. We told our guest house owner that we had hired our driver for the day and he said he knows him and that he’s a good guy (makes sense since he was parked right outside our guest house) but it made us feel more comfortable. The main thing to see in Jaipur (even more popular than the City Palace) is the Amer Fort. When we were driving up to it we stopped on the side of the road to take a picture from afar. While stopped, a man carrying a basket approached us. He smiled and set it down and took the cover off revealing a snake! He started to play his flute (‘pungi’) and the snake rose up and started swaying. We watched for a quick minute but then hopped back into the tuk tuk and drove off. We arrived at the fort and looking up at it, it was huge! It was really cool to walk through and see where people hundreds of years ago would live and hang out. We walked around for a while and came across one guard who let us go behind a barrier and take a couple pictures in a closed off area. We weren’t sure if it was actually closed off or if he just wanted a tip – but either way it was fun to explore.

The last stop on the tour was the ‘shopping’ portion of the trip. We were taken to a textile factory run by a friend of our driver. We were a little hesitant since we didn’t plan to buy anything, but it was actually really interesting to see the work that goes on behind the scenes and was worth a stop. A lot of the patterns on the cloth are made by hand using a stamp that is pressed onto the cloth over and over again. The owner wanted to show us his shop after, and of course he was a little pushy for us to buy something (not bad though compared to other shops we went into). He made us chai tea to get us to sit down with him (which was a sales tactic we loved since the tea was always delicious). He showed us loads of tapestries, blankets, rugs, pillow cases, etc. and each was delicately placed on the floor in front of us. After laying down twenty pieces or so, he started asking us about individual ones and if we would buy any. Every time we said no, he would grab it and throw it across the room into a pile. We nearly spit our tea out the first time he did it; so much for the gentle presentation earlier! After saying no to everything, we walked around his showroom a bit longer and actually did end up buying a pillowcase. You could tell it was hand-made and it looked nice!

After our shopping trip, our driver brought us to an amazing lunch spot that we definitely wouldn’t have found, or even known that it was a restaurant. We were led up to the 2nd floor of a nondescript rundown building and given a menu of vegetarian options. We had some of our (now) favorite Indian dishes – chana masala and aloo ghobi. Overall, our tour was probably one of our favorite days in India.

India

Jodhpur

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The main attraction in Jodphur is Mehrangarh Fort, which is one of the largest forts in India. It was built in 1460 and stands tall 410 feet above the city. We tried to leave our hotel room as early as possible to avoid the strong afternoon heat and this also meant we beat most of the crowds for attractions. The fort itself was really cool. We could walk through a lot of the rooms and they had a lot of paintings and old tools/weapons on display. You could get a feel of what it life was like in the fort back then. The best parts were the rooms that still had the elaborate paintings all over the floors and ceilings.

After our time in Jodhpur we are starting to get the hang of India. After going into countless shops, we pieced together some of the tricks (that are obvious now looking back at it) that everyone from shopkeepers to rickshaw drivers use to get as much money as possible off you. Almost all Indians we met asked us some standard questions: Where are you from? How long in India? Where are you coming from/where are you going to after? Where are you staying? What is your job? These seemed like innocent questions and about half the time they were. The other half was people gauging how much money we had. At the beginning we would say we were from the USA and travelling India for a few weeks, then heading home to our jobs as a marketing specialist in insurance and factory supervisor. We didn’t always care to get into the fact that we were travelling long term. Some comments tipped us off that maybe we shouldn’t say these things though. “Oh, marketing insurance? Oh, big paying job, yes?” Whoops. From there we decided to say we were both working in restaurants, as a waitress and waiter. The reactions we got were much better, with shopkeepers going lower on price from the get-go without us even negotiating. We told them we aren’t staying in fancy hotels either (which is true), so that followed along that we were on a budget.

We saw a sign in our guesthouse offering camel safaris, and we knew we had to go for it. We were picked up at 2pm and off we went into the Thar desert. Our driver didn’t seem to speak any English, but he received a few phone calls during the drive from his boss, the guy running the safaris. He handed the phone to us and we spoke with the owner, who would then get back on the phone with the driver and translate whatever we said. He asked us if we’d like to stop at Mandora Gardens, which was along the way anyways. We said sure and were dropped off to walk around. The gardens were filled with Indian families and looked like a nice spot to have a picnic. The ruins were cool, but since we didn’t have anyone speaking English with us we really didn’t know too much about what we were looking at. The gardens were also filled with pretty big monkeys, leaping around and looking for anyone who had food. We walked by a couple pulling cucumbers out of a bag and handing them out to the monkeys. It was pretty funny seeing them walk up and grabbing one, then proceeding to chomp away at it. It was all fun and games until one monkey came out of nowhere running up to us and jumped onto Cory’s chest and leaped away. Thankfully that was all it did, but it was still a little scary.

We continued on to Osian, a desert town where we would begin our journey. We passed right through the town and kept going however, and soon enough we came across a camel on the side of the road in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. We pulled over and our driver motioned that this was where we get out. We saw another man leading a second camel down to us as well, so we hopped out of the car and onto some camels. The camels were way taller than we expected, and when they stood up with us on their backs it was a little frightening! Once atop them, we took off across the desert and were led by our guide Omar to his family’s home. The ride itself was fun – the camels walked slowly, and we didn’t ride long enough to become uncomfortable. When we got there we were introduced to his brother, Raj, who owned and operated the camel safaris. We chilled for a bit in their house, had some Chai tea, then went off for another ride on the camels. After that we hopped into Raj’s jeep and took off toward a different set of sand dunes to watch the sunset. The sand was so soft to walk on and it was the best sunset we saw in all of India. Once we were back at the house we were served a traditional dinner. We weren’t exactly sure what it was, but it was actually really good. It was definitely a different lifestyle out here; we ate on the floor and everything was made from scratch right then. It seemed like more and more people from the house kept coming in the room to talk to us while we were eating. Eventually we headed back to our hotel but overall it was a really fun experience.

India

Udaipur

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Deciding to pass on the 16 hr train ride from Mumbai, we flew to our next destination of Udaipur. As soon as we got the hotel we decided we liked this place. Udaipur is known as the “City of Lakes” due to the man-made lakes that surround the area. Our hotel was right next to Lake Pichola. Besides the lakes, Udaipur is also home to some historic forts and palaces. Udaipur was a nice change of pace from the craziness of Mumbai, and the city felt more manageable to navigate.

The main attraction here is the City Palace. Construction on this started in 1559 and over the following 400 years several additions were built by the several rulers of the Mewar dynasty. The whole palace was very impressive, and it was very cool to see the architecture. It was interesting to see how royalty lived so long ago.

India

Mumbai

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We arrived into India after our most stressful flight of the trip so far. Our flight from Kathmandu to Delhi was delayed so that caused us to miss our connection to Mumbai. They were able to put us on the next plane which thankfully was leaving only 2 hours later. This meant however, that we didn’t get into Mumbai until 1am, and our hotel at 2am. The streets were still lively at this time but nothing like what we would experience our first full day there. We thought Kathmandu was crazy, but Mumbai is even more insane! Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) is the most populous city in India and the 4th most in the world, with roughly 22 million residents. To put this into perspective, all of New England has about 14 million residents.

We walked over to the Gateway of India on our first day. This arch monument was built during the 20th century and erected to commemorate the landing of King George V and Queen Mary in Bombay in 1911. While we were walking around the square where it’s located, we were approached almost a dozen times by Indian people wanting to take their picture with us. We had actually read that this might happen and we didn’t mind, whether it was with me, with Elly, or with both of us together. Note: this continued to happen through all of India!

We went on a street food tour through Reality Tours our first night there. It was a great tour and all the food we tried was really good! We started in Chowpatty, which is a popular beach, even though the water isn’t safe to swim in due to sewage being dumped into the sea. The first half of the tour was all vegetarian options, while the second half was all meat based. We started with pani puri, a fried crisp (puri) that is hollowed out and filled with flavored water, potato, chickpeas, and masala. It was pretty good! They are meant to be eaten in one bite, so all of the flavor bursts into your mouth. We could easily see how people can just keep eating these snacks. We then had dahi puri, a variation with different chutneys, yogurt and topped with sev (crunchy noodles made from chickpea flour paste). We both liked these better than the regular pani puri’s. The yogurt gave it a nice creamy flavor that took some of the edge off the spice. Next up was sev puri. Introduced to us as “Indian nachos,” this one was Cory’s favorite. It was made up of a puri topped off with diced potatoes, onions, tomatoes, various chutneys, chili, cilantro, raw mango, and sev. Neither of us really loved the next dish, which was pav bhaji. This is basically a thick mashed up vegetable curry served with a bread roll to mop it all up with. This is a popular Indian comfort food dish that children tend to love. After all these dishes, we had an intermission with some kulfi, which is like ice cream but much denser and creamier. This was Elly’s favorite.

Afterwards, we walked through the streets for a bit (narrowly avoiding cars) and then got a cab to our next destination: Mohammed Ali Road. Here we walked through the chaos of people and cars that surrounded us and made our way to some food stalls serving various chicken-based dishes. We can’t remember the actual names, but we had a type of chicken roll, flattened chicken sandwich, and shredded chicken burger. The burger was our favorite; pretty spicy though. We also had some cabbage and onions doused in lime juice and covered in salt which was much better than we thought it would be. To finish off, we went to Taj Ice Cream to try their special 131-year-old recipe. It was delicious! All in all, most of what we tried was really good and we ended up going back later in the week for more!

Another night we ventured across Mumbai to White Owl Brewery for dinner. I heard there were lots of great craft breweries in the city, so we figured we had to try one. We figured out the train system ($0.15 for a ride across the city) and joined the hundreds of locals crammed in the cars like sardines. We finally got to the brewery and were a little early for dinner, so we had the whole place to ourselves. We read some reviews that not all the breweries around have as good food as they do beer, but White Owl definitely delivered on both.

One day while walking down the street we had an interesting encounter. Casually coming down the sidewalk from the other direction was a huge bull (which isn’t out of the ordinary at all for India). Usually they just leave you alone, but we could tell he was sort of looking at us weird. Elly managed to quickly go around but then he trapped Cory and head butted him! Luckily Cory wasn’t hurt and managed to get away a second later, but it was a little scary in the moment. Once we were past the bull we were able to laugh about it with the Indian men behind us who had witnessed the whole thing.

The same group that did our street food tour, Reality Tours, also did loads of other tours around Mumbai, and one in particular caught our eye: Dharavi Slum tour. This is actually the same slum that’s featured in Slumdog Millionaire. We looked up reviews and they were all overwhelmingly positive about the ethicalness of the company and spoke of how the tour was an eye-opening experience. Dharavi is one of the largest slums in the world, with an area less than 1 square mile but having a population of over 1 million. The goal of Reality Tours is to educate people and change their perception on what slums are truly like. 80% of all profits from tours go back directly into the community, through their sister-NGO Reality Gives. Reality Gives runs great quality education programs in areas such as Dharavi. No pictures were allowed on the tour out of respect for the locals. During the tour we walked through both commercial and residential sections of Dharavi. No photography was allowed on the tour out of respect for the residents. We started in the commercial section and saw a wide range of business activities, such as recycling, leather tanning, bakeries, embroidery, garment-making, pottery-making, and more. Metal and plastic come from all over Mumbai (and beyond) to be recycled here and supplied back to manufacturers. We saw people making suitcases and some dress shirts, all of which are sent to manufacturers that put a (fake) brand name label on them and sell them on the streets of Mumbai. They don’t advertise that the goods come out of Dharavi, but if you’ve ever wondered where your fake brands come from, it may be places like this! There are an estimated 5,000 businesses and 15,000 single-room factories within Dharavi. Goods made here are exported all over the world, and the total annual turnover of all industries here is estimated to be almost US$1 billion per year. Sadly, this is not reflected in daily wages for workers, who can make roughly 200 to 700 rupees per day (US$3.06 to $10.72) depending on the job. A lot of the workers come from smaller villages in India and come to Dharavi for 10 months or so of the year and send money back home to their families. A lot end up living in the same factories that they work in, giving the owners employees that are on time to work and giving the employees a free place to stay.

We were also taken through the residential section of the slum, where we wandered through maze-like alleyways to see the many houses stacked upon each other. We also saw a few local playgrounds, as well as schools, hospitals, markets, and other stores. It was very much its own city within a city. During the tour we had many local kids come up to us to wave and say hello. We chatted with a few and had simple English conversations such as “how are you” and “what is your name.” One boy said we both had nice names, so we have that going for us. There was tons of diversity here, with temples, mosques, churches and pagodas all strewn throughout the area. Most of the residents have electricity running through their homes, as well as running water (only for 3 hours a day, however). Unfortunately, sanitation is a big problem in the slum, as there are very few private bathrooms and limited public ones, lots of which are dirty and broken down. Many residents resort to going in the streets, which leads to the spread of contagious diseases. The local river is also used, and has trash dumped into it as well. There have been many plans to re-develop Dharavi, but none have fully gone through so far. The latest plan involves constructing housing and resettling residents into 350 sq ft alternate accommodations. Many residents are opposed, especially if they currently have larger accommodations now. Others are concerned that their small informal businesses will not be re-located. This is currently an ongoing conversation in Mumbai. We ended our tour by visiting some of the community centers and seeing the school that Reality Gives set up in Dharavi. There was a variety of classes taught here such as English and Computer skills. It was cool seeing the good that the company is doing in the area; our guide even told us that she had learned English through those same classes. Overall, it was a very interesting experience seeing the slum first-hand and seeing that it wasn’t quite like what one might imagine. Some was definitely accurate to what we thought, such as the cramped housing and unsanitary living conditions. Otherwise, it was fascinating to see the wide-range of business going on and how many people were actively working to improve their lives and conditions. We came across many friendly people and while their living situation is far from great, they are still doing their best with what they have. Despite the conditions, Dharavi didn’t give off a depressing vibe; lots of people smiled and waved and just seemed to be trying to live their lives just like everybody else. The tour was absolutely something that won’t be quickly forgotten.

All photos used here picturing Dharavi are used courtesy of Reality Tours & Travel.

Our Reality Tours guides. For the food tour we had Balaji, Janna, and Rajesh. For the Dharavi tour we had Simran. All were great!

Nepal

Annapurna Trek – Part Three

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Day 8 – We finally made it to Annapurna Base Camp today! We woke up around 5am and left our heavy bags at MBC for the hike to ABC. It was freezing but the 2 hour uphill hike wasn’t too awful since we were surrounded by mountains and were so excited to make it to our final destination. By the time we got there the sun was up, there were hardly any clouds, and the views were amazing! We couldn’t believe we were actually there with the mountains all around us. The whole trek was definitely worth it for this and we felt really proud of ourselves. The sense of community on the trail was really something special. It was cool to keep seeing familiar faces along the way. Whether it was just passing by and giving words of encouragement or spending time with people in the many teahouses which we stayed at, the people we encountered was a great aspect of the trek. With a few exceptions, everyone we met was very nice and were easy to chat with since we all shared a common goal: reaching Annapurna Base Camp. It was a long trek, but it really felt like everyone was in it together, so that was encouraging. It was nice to share the feeling of accomplishment of getting to ABC with some of them.

We stayed at basecamp as long as possible but we still had a pretty long trek day ahead of us back down the mountain. Today was the only day that we really wished we had hiking boots instead of just running sneakers since the snow made it slippery going down the mountain but we survived. Before we knew it we were back down in the forest again and the air was easier to breathe. We were pretty tired by the time we got to our guest house for the night but it was a fun atmosphere since everyone else staying there had also come down from ABC.

MILES HIKED
Annapurna Base Camp (13550 ft) Round Trip: 4 Miles
Machapuchre Base Camp (12139 ft) to Bamboo (7581 ft): 6.6 Miles

Day 9 – Today was the last full day of trekking and it was a pretty tough day with lots of uphill and downhill steps. Our legs felt like they were going to give out on us but we pushed forwards and knew we were so close to the end. We were exhausted when we got to the guest house for the night and were feeling ready to be back in a hotel the following night. We could still see the mountain at this point and spent the night reading and hanging out in the dining room. At the guest house it was only us and a large group of Malaysians. At dinnertime, the group of them shared some of their family-style dinner with us and got us singing along to some of their favorite Malaysian tunes. It was a nice last night to end our trek on a good note.

MILES HIKED
Bamboo (7581 ft) to Chhomrong (7286 ft): 4.6 Miles

Day 10 – We couldn’t believe this was the last day of the trek! We made it to the last stop a little after 12 and had our last meal of the trek at the guest house. The last leg of the journey was a local bus back in Pokhara. The bus ride down the mountain was pretty terrifying – it was super bumpy and it felt like we were on the edge of the cliff the whole time. We got back to our hotel in the late afternoon and we couldn’t believe it was over, but it felt good to have a nice shower and bed again. Overall the trek was an amazing experience and absolutely worth it.

MILES HIKED
Chhomrong (7286 ft) to Siwai (5020 ft): 6.1 Miles

Nepal

Annapurna Trek – Part Two

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The journey to Annapurna Base Camp is what’s known as a “teahouse trek.” This means you go from one teahouse to another for your food and accommodation needs. Teahouses are basically small hotels run by local families along the route. The rooms were very basic, just consisting of one or two beds, and there was always a large dining room where trekkers would gather to pass the time after a long day of hiking. There was usually at least 6 hours of downtime each day. Each teahouse has roughly the same food menu, consisting of rice, macaroni, noodles, spaghetti, pizza, and different Nepali food, such as dal baht. Dal baht is a traditional meal popular in Nepal which consists of steamed rice, lentil soup, and vegetables. This was also an “all you can eat” choice where you could get as many refills as you like. 100 Nepalese rupees equals roughly $1.

Day 4 started out with downhill steps – which sounds nice but by now our legs were pretty sore by now and going down actually hurt our calves more. Once we made it all the way to the bottom of the hill (anything without snow on the top is considered a hill in Nepal) and crossed the suspension bridge over the river we just had to go all the way back up. Today we started to have a different landscape. There was tree covered mountains all around us and lots of farmland. We walked by a lot of people farming and loads of buffalo. We were rewarded with an amazing view of the mountains when we made it to our guesthouse in Chhomrong for the night. Here we met a girl from Sudbury, Massachusetts who was teaching English up in the mountains. She was on a gap year trip before starting college. She had been in Nepal for a few months now and it was pretty interesting talking with her. Since we were getting up further into the mountains, normally free things were starting to cost money. It was a couple dollars to charge any electronics, or use WiFi, or even take hot showers. We only charged things when really needed, and didn’t bother with WiFi.

MILES HIKED
Tadapani (8796 ft) to Chhomrong (7286 ft): 5.1 Miles

Day 5 was similar – lots of ups and down through the forest and farmland. At this point, our legs and shoulders were starting to kill, and every stone step was a chore. Halfway through the trek at this point and we just needed to grin and bear it. Pushing onwards, we had the scenery around us to encourage us. At this point we could see the mountains that were our end goal. During the trek, we all noticed the clouds forming behind us. Jun ran off ahead us of to make sure our spot in the teahouse was still secured for the night. We trudged along and put on our raincoats and raincovers for our bags just in case. Luckily, we made it to our guest house for the night 5 minutes before it started pouring. Our room was on the 2nd floor and by now it hurt to walk up and down the stairs to get to our room. We were still decently warm during the day, but it was freezing at night and the guesthouses no longer had heat. Everyone staying at the guest house would just camp out in the dining hall and wear their down jackets.

MILES HIKED
Chhomrong (7286 ft) to Bamboo (7556 ft): 4.4 Miles

Day 6 – We left at our usual time around 8am and the morning was the usual ups and downs through the forest and when we made it to lunch we could see the mountains even better. After lunch it was a little bit of a harder climb since it was actual terrain and no steps – it actually felt like we were climbing a mountain. It was raining by the time we arrive at the guest house for the night (noticing a trend?) and we were pretty cold. This guest house was extremely crowded, and we were lucky to have a room. We had to share it with another couple from England, but they were really nice. A lot of the other trekkers there ended up sleeping on the benches in the dining hall. This night was fun since there were so many other trekkers, and everyone just hung out together and talked. There were people from all over the world, and a lot of people we recognized by now since we were all on the same track to base camp.

MILES HIKED
Bamboo (7556 ft) to Deurali (10458 ft) 4.3 Miles

Day 7 – We left around 6:30am the next day in order to beat the rain we had heard was coming around 9am. There was snow on the ground from the night before and it was freezing but this was actually one of our favorite parts of the trek. We walked through a huge valley and it was insane. It was super clear, and we had huge mountains all around us. There was hardly anyone else on the trail yet either since we had left so early. The views just kept getting more amazing as we got closer and closer to our destination. We made it to Machapuchre Base Camp around 9am before anything happened so we just had the rest of the day to chill. Annapurna Base Camp is about another 2 hours from here and some people skip MBC, but we didn’t want to risk going higher up too fast and getting altitude sickness. We spent the day at MBC reading and talking to other trekkers, and just trying to stay warm. When we first got to MBC we had amazing views of the mountains around us but not even an hour later we couldn’t even see out of the windows and a blizzard hit. We were wearing our down jackets full time at this point as the outside temperature was around 40 degrees (or lower). You could definitely tell we were up in the Himalayas and it was a really cool feeling. We were happy with our decision to stay at MBC for a night and couldn’t wait for ABC the next day.

MILES HIKED
Deurali (10458 ft) to Machapuchre Base Camp (12139 ft): 2.5 Miles

Nepal

Annapurna Trek – Part One

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We left Kathmandu early to catch the 7am bus to Pokhara, a lakeside town that was the jumping off point for treks. The journey lasted almost 9 hours, but it was broken up with stops for food/bathroom breaks, so it wasn’t TOO terrible. We got into Pokhara late in the afternoon, settled into our hotel, ate a quick dinner, were briefed on the upcoming trek, and did some last-minute repacking of our bags. We rented sleeping bags in Kathmandu since we heard it got pretty cold at night the farther up the mountain you go. We were worried about packing them since they were huge and took up a ton of space. We asked our guide, Jun, if they were really necessary or if we could just leave them at the hotel with the rest of our belongings that we weren’t bringing. He told us that there are thick blankets provided at every teahouse along the way, so he said not to bother with the sleeping bags. We trusted him on this and were glad we did. The blankets were usually sufficient even at the highest altitude we went to (although we still slept in our down jackets as well).

The first morning of the trek we were pretty nervous – neither of us had ever done a long hike before and we weren’t used to carrying our bags on our backs for longer than an hour. The day started with a 2 hr taxi ride to the actual starting point and when we reached it, it didn’t seem like much. The taxi just pulled over to the side of a dirt road and Jun said this was where we started. The first part of the trek was through Nayapul and we walked past a variety of stores selling all sorts of various snacks and trekking gear. After we had our permits checked we started off on the first real stretch of the trek. It was hot out and the path was pretty much all uphill on a dirt road. Cars are allowed on this road also which made it very dusty. By the time we stopped for lunch we were drenched in sweat. Eventually we made it off the road and onto the first of many uphill stone steps. After crossing a couple suspension bridges we made it to our first teahouse in Tikhedhunga. It was much bigger than we imagined. There were several guesthouses and a variety of snacks and items that you could still get. We checked into ours – definitely the most rustic place we’ve ever stayed. But there was hot water for the shower and heavy blankets for us to use – really all we needed. Overall the first day was pretty tough but we thought it went pretty well. We figured if we could make it through day one we could make it the entire way.

MILES HIKED
Nayapul (3323 ft) to Tikhedhunga (4987 ft): 5.4 Miles

We saw multiple porters throughout the entire trek. They are used to bring supplies up the mountain, and you can also hire one to carry your gear. We were always amazed by how much they could carry, anywhere from 50 up to 100lbs. Most of them carried the bags by a strap attached to their head, wearing simple tennis shoes or even flip flops.

We started day 2 at around 8am – with 3,000 uphill stone steps. This we were a little less prepared for – but we made it! We went slow and took lots of water breaks and were very happy to stop for lunch at the top of them. After lunch the stone steps continued – and basically continued through the entire trek. But we did have some breaks of flat land in between. When we were about 30 min away from our guesthouse for the night it started pouring/hailing. We were completely soaked when we made it to Ghorepani but luckily the guest house had a fire going that we could warm up by. We spent the rest of the night warming up with hot tea and pizza.

MILES HIKED
Tikhedhunga (4987 ft) to Ghorepani (9433 ft): 5.7 Miles

We started day 3 of the trek at 5am in order to make it to Poon Hill for sunrise. We put on our headlights and joined the line of other people walking up. Luckily, we could leave our big bag at the guest house for this because it was a 2 mile walk up more stone steps. We wore our down jackets for this but by the top we were pretty warm. By the time we made it to the top the sun had already started to rise above the mountains, but the views were amazing! It was a little cloudy, but we could still see a lot of the mountains. We stayed up there for a bit taking in the view, but eventually headed down when we couldn’t feel our toes anymore – and we still had a whole day of trekking in front of us. After our usual breakfast of eggs, toast, and a banana pancake we headed out. Today mostly consisted of more steps leading through the forest. The rhododendron flowers were in bloom on a lot of the trees which made the forest even more pretty to walk through. Also, now whenever there was a break in the trees we could see mountains in the background which was a great motivator. After lunch when we were about an hour away from our guest house we were hit with rain again. Thankfully our guide was able to get us the last room at our guest house in Tadapani for the night, and it also had a fireplace. Having Jun call ahead to the guest houses and secure us a room was definitely a major plus of having a guide. We saw lots of trekkers arrive to the town after us that couldn’t get a room because all the guest houses were already full. The options for when that happens are to go ahead to the next town and hope there’s a room, but it could be another hour or two of trekking, backtrack, or you can usually ask to sleep on the dining room floor. After the rain cleared, we walked through the village to get a better view of the mountains ahead of us.

MILES HIKED
Poon Hill (10531 ft) Round Trip: 2 Miles
Ghorepani (9433 ft) to Tadapani (8796 ft): 5 Miles

NepalSouth Asia

Kathmandu

Kathmandu is definitely the craziest city we’ve ever been to! Just the taxi ride from the airport to our hotel was an adventure. We quickly learned there are no rules of the road, stoplights/signs don’t exist, lines in the road seem like vague suggestions, and if you’re not an aggressive driver, you’re not getting anywhere. A layer of pollution hangs over the city and coupled with cars kicking up dirt from the road, just breathing seemed like a chore at times. As far as we can tell, there are no street addresses in Kathmandu; only districts. Thankfully, our driver was able to locate our hotel easily enough. We had a decently spacious private room with an attached bathroom and were located right near the tourist district, Thamel, for only $10 a night.

Our first night we ventured outside to wander the streets and were quickly approached by a seemingly friendly Kathmandu local. He told us we were lucky as there was a festival going on that day and it was only right down the street. He asked if he could lead us there and practice his English with us along the way. We had our guard up but decided to follow along and figured we could turn around at any point. As we were walking down the street, he asked if we would like to see the art school that he went to. We said sure and he led us there and turned us over to his “teacher” so he could tell us about all the wonderful art pieces they made. At this point there was clearly no festival going on. We listened for a few minutes, but when the teacher started trying to get us to buy a piece, we quickly said, “no thank you” and walked out. During our time in Kathmandu there were a couple people that tried this on us again, but we just started to ignore them and carry on with whatever we were doing.

We spent a lot of time wandering through Thamel, just taking in all the sights, sounds, and smells. All the while trying to not get hit by a car, motorcycle, or bike that is streaming its way down the road. Thankfully, some of Thamel is blocked off to vehicles. One day while walking, we stumbled upon the Garden of Dreams. For $2 entry, one can escape from the clouds of dust in the streets and relax inside a small park area. We chilled here for a bit, and while it unfortunately still wasn’t a breath of (literal) fresh air, it was nice to lay back.

The main thing we wanted to do in Nepal was trek through the Himalayas. We had decided on doing the trek to Annapurna Base Camp in western Nepal. During springtime it was supposed to be especially beautiful with all the rhododendron flowers in full bloom. We had the intentions of doing this trek by ourselves with no guide or porter, as we had seen loads of stories of people doing it alone and saying it went well. One day as we were roaming through the streets of Thamel, we were approached by a man trying to sell us a tour. We quickly said no and told him we were just looking for somewhere to eat, not looking for a tour. He told us that he knew of a fantastic place. Seeing as how we had been wandering for some time already and were quite hungry, we went along with him. He took us to a restaurant owned by his cousin (of course) and it was actually pretty good! He waited for us to finish eating so at that point we felt we should go along and see what tours his agency had to offer. After chatting with the people at the agency for a while and explaining to them what we wanted to do, they offered us a great trekking package that included a guide. We accepted and it turned out to be a great decision.

The trekking package also included a free city tour of Kathmandu. We started our tour the next day at 10am sharp and had a lot of ground to cover. We met our guide, Kapil, and took off for our first destination: Kathmandu Durbar Square. Kapil was super knowledgeable and a fun guide to have (and loved taking pictures of us). After driving through the crowded streets, we arrived at our first stop. A lot of the Square was damaged in the 2015 earthquake, but what was left standing was still impressive. It was sobering seeing what damage the earthquake had caused in and around Kathmandu. Kapil told us more about the earthquake and the devastation it brought, and he also mentioned how his family was from one of the hardest hit regions; Gorkha. Thankfully, his family all survived the quake. Among the ongoing re-construction (the $10 entrance fee goes towards the effort), Durbar Square still contains many notable sights. We couldn’t go inside many temples, but they were still cool to look at it. One such temple was where the Kumari lives. This is the Nepal tradition of worshipping young (3-15 years) girls as manifestations of the divine female energy. The girl is selected from the Shakya caste or Bajracharya clan of the Nepalese Newari community. She isn’t allowed to have her feet touch the ground outside of her residence and rarely leaves. When the girl hits puberty, she is thought to be no longer ‘pure’ and a new girl is chosen to take her place. The current Kumari is 3 years old and we were able to see her make an appearance at her window (no pictures were allowed). Seeing the Kumari is believed to bring good luck. We weren’t sure how to feel about the whole situation, but after reading more about it, we learned that the girl is allowed to stay with her family and isn’t taken away by random people or anything. We also read about some past Kumari’s and how it affected them. Thankfully, they seem to grow up to still have normal lives. A very different culture indeed.

The second part of the tour brought us to Swayambhunath Temple (aka Monkey Temple). The temple was high up on a hill and there were 365 steps leading up to it. However, we cheated and went the back way and drove up. On the hill was a giant stupa with peace flags all streaming down from the top. Running down the walkways and climbing over the stupa itself were, you guessed it, monkeys! While they were everywhere, they didn’t really seem to bother people (unless you had food on you). We also had great views of the city from up there, which was nice since it was a clear day. We had lunch at Boudhanath, the great Boudha Stupa. The stupa was impressive and there were loads of stores surrounding it selling all sorts of souvenirs.

The last stop of the day was Pashupatinath, located on the Bagmati River. We weren’t allowed inside the main temple since we’re not Hindi, but we could still walk the grounds, which was an experience in and of itself. The Bagmati is important to Hindus as the deceased are cremated on the banks of this holy river. “According to the Nepalese Hindu tradition, the dead body must be dipped three times into the Bagmati River before cremation, so that the reincarnation cycle may be ended. The chief mourner (usually the first son) who lights the funeral pyre must take a holy river-water bath immediately after cremation,” (Wikipedia). The holy river is said to purify people spiritually. We were able to see some cremations taking place while we were there. It was quite an experience to see such an intimate ritual being done out in the open, with both locals and tourists looking on. The Nepali people are used to it however, as long as one is respectful.

We spent the rest of our time in Kathmandu stocking up on supplies for our trek. Seeing as how we really only packed for warm weather, we needed to get gloves, warm hats, down jackets, etc for when we got up into the mountains. Everything was pretty cheap and even though we paid “tourist” prices it still wasn’t bad – can’t really argue with renting a down jacket for $1.50 a day. The night before we were supposed to leave Cory unfortunately came down with a case of food poisoning and we had to postpone our trek by a day. It was only a matter of time before one of us got sick. We were able to move the date no problem and had an extra day to mentally prepare ourselves for it. We will be doing a several part series to cover our trek to Annapurna Base Camp, since each day had so much going on. Stay tuned…