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Top of the World

Seven out of the nine highest mountain peaks in the world are in Nepal. It is no wonder then that it is the premier trekking destination in the world. Not only is it the place for extreme mountaineers trying to conquer the highest mountain in the world, but many come for more modest pursuits. And there are yet those who come to chill out and get in touch with their inner hippie. But for many visitors, it is the Nepali people and their fascinating culture that is the draw. For most of us in the west, images of high mountain peaks and sherpas are immediately conjured up when thinking of Nepal. But there is much more diversity, both geographically and culturally, to Nepal than meets the eye. We certainly were surprised, educated, and enthralled by this small country tucked between the two most populous countries in the world. It is very diverse for its size, with many different culture groups and just as many languages and dialects. The caste system of social stratification based on endogamy and heredity is widely associated with India. We were surprised to learn that it is also prevalent in Nepal. The main religion is Hinduism, but various other religions including Buddhism and Christianity are also practiced. They seem to have reached a level of religious tolerance in Nepal that is unseen in other countries. Many of the Hindu and Buddhist temples are shared places of worship. While much of Nepal is mountainous, there is also the plains area (terai) where the climate is more tropical than alpine. In fact the majority of the population lives in the plains. This is the most productive region of the country with agriculture being the primary industry. One can even go on safari in this region. Chitwan National Park is home to the only one horned rhinoceros in the world, a variety of bird species, elephants, and the elusive Bengal tiger. We opted not to go as we had already been spoiled by awesome wildlife viewing in Africa. Also, because the roads in Nepal are in such poor condition, it would have been a lengthy trip to get there. Politically, Nepal is quite a new democracy and as such, suffers from the growing pains of a country in transformation. The transition was not without conflict or bloodshed. For much of its history, Nepal was ruled by various monarchs and kingdoms. Between 1996-2006, a civil war between the Maoist rebels and the government of Nepal claimed many lives as they fought for control of the country. To add to the intrigue, the royal family was murdered by the Crown Prince himself during this time, and his motivations still remain purely speculative.

The 2015 earthquake took a huge toll on the country already so poor. Thousands of people died and many more were injured. The worst hit areas were around the Kathmandu Valley. Three years on, and while some areas still lay in ruins, many places have been rebuilt and back to function. It will take Nepal quite a few more years to fully recover from this natural disaster. As tourism is Nepal’s number one industry, it took a dip following the earthquake but from what we learned, the tourists have for the most part flocked back. We spent close to 2 months in Nepal, with most of our time concentrated in Pokhara. We landed in Kathmandu and immediately our senses were put to the test. Coming from the opulent streets of Baku, Kathmandu could not be more different. To our surprise, it resembled India more than we expected. This is to say, it was extremely congested, with motorbikes, cars, people, and yes cows all vying for space. The overloaded electric poles were a memorable sight and you can only image the chaos that must ensue if one should be taken down in an accident or storm. So glaring was how dusty the city was, with a film of dust settling on everything. It was common to see shop keepers routinely beating dust out of their products. To manage the pollution, many people walk around with face masks on. In spite of this, there were some interesting things to see and do during our week here. As the trekking industry is huge in Nepal, the Thamel district where most travellers stay, was chalk full of shops selling trekking equipment and guiding services. Souvenir shops carried a dizzying selection of cashmere and pashmina products, baggy-butt tourist pants, woven bags, silver jewelry, intricate thanga art, and singing bowls. We visited Patan Durbar Square, the Monkey Temple, and Boudhanath Stupa (the biggest Buddhist stupa in the world). En route to Pokhara, we spent a few days in Bandipur, a small quaint hill top town. The air was clean and the surrounding green hills were beautiful. It was here that we had our first glimpse of the Himalayas. Even from a distance they were magnificent, especially at sunrise and sunset. We did a great hike to the nearby village of Ramkot. It was a functioning village without any tourist facilities. The locals were friendly and inquisitive. We met the cutest old couple, aged 72, who along with their extended family, were happy to chat with us and happy to fuss over our kids. Again, because of the length of their hair, they were surprised and amused to find out that they were “babus”, boys, afterall. No matter where we go, our boys seem to garner a lot of attention with their shaggy mop tops and "pretty" faces. Pokhara was remarkably different from Kathmandu. Most noticeably, it was not nearly as dusty and chaotic as Kathmandu. Built on the edge of Lake Fewa, it was aesthetically pleasing too as there were views of the lake from various places in town. Pokhara attracts many travelers with its laid-back vibe and it is also the take off point for treks to the Annapurna mountains. Our first trek was the Poon Hill Trek, a popular 6 day teahouse trek in the Annapurna region. We went with a company called Three Sisters, a trekking company which trained and empowered female guides. They also had limits on what their porters could carry unlike many other companies in which the porters were weighed down with inhumane loads. Our guide Devi was fantastic and great with the kids. Two of the boys had fevers right before the trek, and we contemplated delaying the trek. But considering the sympathetic parents we are, they seemed fine with enough meds in them, so we cautiously embarked on our adventure. Day 1 of the trek was great and everyone managed fine. By day 2, it was a different story. Besides the fever, Finn started complaining of some belly pain. Nevertheless, he managed all those stairs and made it to the second teahouse with intermittent discomfort. But as the evening wore on, his pain worsened and it was consistently over his right lower quadrant. Could he seriously have appendicitis in the middle of the mountains?! Finally in the late evening we made the decision to take him down the mountain. John and Finn hiked down to the nearest village with road access and thankfully they were able to hire a jeep to take them straight to the hospital in Pokhara. What normally should’ve taken abut 4 hours on windy steep mountain roads, they reached Pokhara in a record time of 3 hours! At this point it wasn’t so much an impending appendix issue that was on their minds, but rather whether they would survive the ride to the city. Thankfully they arrived intact, if not a bit rattled from the ride. Finn was admitted and had an ultrasound done on his abdomen. He had surgery the following day and his appendix was taken out. It was the right call on John’s part. Finn spent the next 3 days recovering in the hospital. While Finn and John were having their own adventures of sorts, Nico, Milo and I stayed in the mountains to continue our trek. Although not ideal, we completed the trek and the boys had a wonderful time. Our trekking companions kept them occupied and entertained with many card games, and making bows and arrows. The hike was great….lot’s of up (in the form of over 5000 stairs!), some down, amazing mountain views, forests and waterfalls. The teahouses were basic but comfortable. The downside was that the trek was very popular and was a bit too busy for our liking.We were happy to come down the mountain and be reunited with Finn and John. After the trek, we rented a house for a month just outside of the city with great views of the lake and rice paddies. It was a peaceful place to hunker down to catch up on some homeschooling, and for Finn to recuperate. But it wasn’t long before we were itching to get back to the mountains. With Finn fully recovered after a couple of weeks, we decided to do the Mardi Himal trek. With our friend and guide Sagar, who the boys absolutely adored from our first trek, we embarked on another 6 day hike. This hike went through beautiful forests for the first few days then opened right up into alpine terrain with the most amazing views of the Annapurna range, particularly Machapuchare (Fishtail). While steadily gaining in popularity over the years, it was still much less crowded than Poon Hill. Especially magical was our hike from High Camp, our highest and coldest camp, to the look-out, another 2 hours hike from camp. Most people do this early in the morning to catch the sunrise, but the thought of getting up at 4 am in the freezing cold was just not going to happen for us. Instead we arrived at High Camp in good time during the day and decided to push on up to the look-out in the afternoon. We were feeling a bit unsure and tentative as the clouds had moved in as we departed and we expected it may all be in vain if we could not see anything. But as it turned out, we arrived at the top of the look-out above the cloud cover with beautiful sunshine and blue skies! It truly felt as if we were on top of the world. And the best thing was that there was only two other people there instead of the hordes during sunrise. As we went back down to camp, we were treated to an amazing sunset.

Another popular activity in Pokhara was paragliding off of Sarangkot Hill. Although we had already gone paragliding in Colombia, we couldn't pass up the opportunity to soar through the air with the Himalayas in the background. Luck was on our side as the skies were crystal clear and we had perfect views of the mountains. Unlucky though were Milo and I. We both felt quite nauseous. While Milo was able to keep his breakfast down, I didn't, and puked twice from the air! Look out below! The other three fared much better and Nico especially wanted to do more acrobatics. Our time spent in Nepal was wonderful! We hiked some of the most magnificent mountains in the world. We were witness to an array of beautiful cultures and awed by the gentle but hardy people who inhabit this land, and we made some great friends along the way. Last but not least, Finn survived a minor medical emergency and can now truly say he left a piece of himself in Nepal. So, all in all, the perfect adventure!

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