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Tainted Nepal

It’s quite common for us travelers to lose track of the world outside our bubble and I was reminded of this when I arrived in Nepal – apparently the entire country is in the midst of a political “strike” forced by the Maoist party, which started on May 1 and has no end in sight.  I understand there are reasons for (and against) this, but it certainly wreaks havoc on tourism.

Yesterday I arrived in Kathmandu after a very long two days (due to layovers) of travel from Brussels.  As I got off the plane and paid for my visa (thankfully I had no problems with immigration in spite of the fact that my passport expires within six months), I heard people talking about some sort of strike – getting the impression they meant the taxi drivers were on strike.  Luckily I had made a guesthouse reservation the night before and the owner had sent someone out to meet me because the airport was definitely too chaotic to do a “get off and find a place randomly” sort of thing like usual.  People everywhere, police everywhere, hrmm…

The drive through town to the guest house was dark (due to the load shedding in progress, city wide power outage) and lonely (no one doing any business).  I got more details on the strike and found out all shops, banks, restaurants, etc. are closed and all ground transportation is unavailable.  With no expected end in sight.  Uhh….  wha..?!

At the guesthouse I was so exhausted that I went straight to crash out, but couldn’t sleep due to being amped up and recovering from a migraine on the flight in.  Eventually the power came back on and I found out that one switch controlled a light and the fan, so you couldn’t run the fan with the light off – too lazy to unscrew the light cover I just shoved an airplane eye-cover (thanks Etihad) on my face and went to sleep.

This morning I woke up early and took a warm shower (wow!) and got some breakfast at the guesthouse.  The first sign of the seriousness of the strike was that the guesthouse didn’t have any bread for toast, but they did have Indian style bread and eggs and muesli so it didn’t seem all bad.  Oh, and coffee of course.  I was able to check my e-mail and whatnot via their wireless, but needed to get some cash and see if I could do some shopping so I quickly hit the town.

Oof.  What a disappointment.  Street after street of shop after shop, all completely closed up.  As I was looking at the shattered upper floor window of a nice bank, a passerby told me the bank had opened the first day so the Maoists warned them off.  Thirty minutes of wandering the city showed that only pharmacies were open (presumably some sort of special deal) and not a single ATM was available.  I had changed my leftover 30 euro to rupees but it wasn’t going to last long…  Either way, it was time to head back and get to the airport for my flight to Pokhara.

Twice in a row on the way back I was taken advantage of because I was still in “wandering Europe” mode and not back in “developing world” mode.  First a monk came up and blessed me before I could wave him off, then asked for a donation for the blessing – ugh, I had to give him something or risk the wrath of god but I wasn’t happy.  Then I ended up talking to this kid from India who seemed really cool and as we were walking for awhile he asked me to buy him a “small milk” so I said sure.  At the pharmacy he asks for a 975 rupee (~$13) box of powdered milk, to which I went “whoah that’s too expensive!”  We settled on a 400 (~$7) box, but I had been thinking of a 40 rupee little milk carton or something – at the same time, he was really nice and articulate and, well, I am better off than he is…  oh well.

Time to head to Pokhara!  I got directions to the tourist bus stop for the airport shuttle, which is the only bus running in town, and walked the fifteen or so minutes to get there.  I must’ve just missed one because no one was there, but within a few minutes a bunch of Westerners with their backpacks had rolled up so I was in the right place.  By the time the bus arrived there were a ton of us there and everyone ended up cramming on the bus smashed up against each other standing in the aisle.   It took almost two hours (vs 20min the night before) to get to the airport due to so many intersections being full of striking people singing, talking, and dancing in large groups.  Many of the people I talked to were leaving Nepal due to the strike, and I found out that it was in effect in Pokhara as well (so much for getting away from it!).

At the airport I found an ATM and got some local cash, then headed over to check in at Buddha Air for my flight – except I wasn’t registered and had no confirmed booking.  Apparently the random travel agent (Hotel Nepal Adventures) I had contacted for this flight screwed me and didn’t get my reservation in – during the busy season this would have completely hosed me, but things were slow enough that I was able to get on a later flight.  A few hours later I arrived in Pokhara, still a bit exhausted from the day before but excited to see how things were.

According to the big map on the airport wall, the airport was actually right near the “tourist” district at Fewa Lake so I decided to walk it and avoid the nonsense – plus, I needed somewhere to stay!  I had an idea of prices and quality and knew the area to look so I planned on going door to door until I found a place that appealed to me (one of the big advantages to arriving in town in the early afternoon).  Many minutes later as I was walking down the street, a gentlemen on a bicycle started talking to me, asking the usual “where are you from”/etc. questions.  It turned out he owns a tourist lodge and offered to show it to me – the price was right at $15/night (a little expensive but worth it for a nice place) with wifi (yes I am on my bed surfing the interwebz, albeit slowly) and it was in the right area, so I decided to take a look.

If you read my blog enough, you’ll notice this isn’t an uncommon trend with me – I don’t like forceful people trying to “sell” me a hotel room, but cool laid back guys who are all “well if you don’t have a place to stay, you can check out this place, it’s nice” are my favorite hook up for local rooms, especially if I meet them outside the typical tout areas.  It feels too much like providence to push them off.

Long story short, I got to the place and was amazed – this is probably the nicest place I have stayed in Cambodia, Thailand, and India on this entire trip.  Beautiful open room with huge windows and lots of sunlight, an amazing new bathroom, a couch, table, and two chairs…  fantastic.  The only downside is that the rooms with a view of the mountains were already taken, but I’m perfectly capable of walking up the stairs to check them out – and let me tell you, that view is incredible.  I can’t wait to see them closer up!  New Pokhara Lodge is the place, BTW, highly recommended.

During the walk to the lodge I found out something interesting – the shops are allowed to open up from 6PM to 8PM.  I had heard this was the case but thought it just applied to food/essentials, but it turns out all the gear stores, restaurants, etc. would be open then!  I napped until 5:45PM then headed out to get some loot!

The list of stuff I needed was quite long, as I showed up here in Nepal with a backpack, two t-shirts, underwear, trekking pants, hard shell jacket, and socks (as well as misc electronics obviously).  Oh, and I’m wearing flip flops – I don’t even have shoes!  In two hours I would need to locate and purchase as much gear as possible, then get some food.  Tricky.

The street of shops here is really excellent and I’m sad it was too dark to take photos to share (everything will be closed in the daytime).  It took me a long time to find shoes that would fit me and I finally ended up with this horrible pair of white fake Adidas tennis shoes, but hopefully they will hold up.  At the same place I grabbed a used –10 degree sleeping bag of dubious manufacture, a used “North Face” down jacket that looks legit based on the stitching and the fact that it has held together under obvious heavy use, an Arcteryx fleece jacket that I’m 99% sure is fake, a generic fleece bag liner, two beat up trekking poles, light gloves, yak wool hat, two liter bottles, and a pair of cheapo sunglasses.  The damage for all this gear ended up being just over $100 which was a bit more than I’d hoped to pay, but considerably less than it would have cost back home (if it doesn’t all fall apart in two days and turn out to be completely fake).

At another stop I grabbed a map of Annapurna, then elsewhere I got some soap, baby powder, and granola bars.  And a can of diet coke (yum).  My list of things to buy is still pretty long, but by this time it was closing on 7:30PM and I needed food, so I ended up eating at a dirty little Indian restaurant which served me an oddly balanced paneer tikka massala – possibly the best sauce and vegetables I’d had of such even in India, but the paneer was soft and mushy and tasted a bit off.  Alas.  With water this meal ended up being fairly pricey at around $4 but I can’t complain, right?  ;)

Tomorrow I need to get my TIMS card and ACAP registration so I can go trekking legally.  Then I need to sort my route (everything is up in the air due to the strike, I can’t take ANY of the normal trekking routes, I’m going to need to put something special together or pay off someone to illicitly take me to a trailhead), buy some meds, and finish off some of the minor whatsits still on my to-buy list (though none of them are critical – who needs soap?).

That leaves about half the day for chilling, which I can deal with.  No paragliding or ultra-light flying or any of that craziness because they’re all closed (dammit!) but at least I can trek.  I hope that once I get into the mountains all this will fade and if I’m lucky it will all be over when I come back to civilization – if I’m not, I’ll end up stranded somewhere.

Good times.  (Why no pictures?  Internet connection here is too slow, sorry)


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