I encourage others to share their travels in hopes it inspires others. Whenever a close friend of mine goes on a trip, I ask if they are willing to share on AngelaTravels. To my delight, my friend, Tobias, went on an epic trip to Nepal and Thailand and was willing to share his story.
The flight to Kathmandu is long. Long enough to cause my body to express it’s annoyance with an involuntary outward sign that it hasn’t produced since before analog roaming was a thing; a bloody nose. But a bloody nose is a small price to pay for the comfort and luxury of riding Singapore Airlines (especially considering the unusual attractiveness of its flight attendants), however this is not a promo for Singapore Airlines. This is a blog. So moving forward…
In a previous trip I had a great experience with long layovers in Amsterdam and Paris. Thus, Mike (one of my traveling companions) and I, with a mind towards briefly exploring Singapore, selected a flight plan with an extended layover. Unfortunately, that layover fell between the hours of midnight and eight a.m, certainly an un-ideal time frame, but we figured that if any city would be bumping at those hours, it would be Singapore.
Downtown Singapore bridge in the wee morning hours.
We envisioned edgy world travelers in dimly lit haunts sipping sophisticated cocktails, but what we found were touristy bars, exorbitantly priced drinks, men with broken moral compasses from all sorts of countries, and an uncomfortably aggressive pack of Filipino hookers, who may have been in their thirties or at least late twenties but all of whom looked too young to be eligible for a driver’s license by American standards. My mild disgust must’ve been evident because Mike, on the basis of experience, assured me that Singapore is wonderful in the daylight and offers some of the world’s tastiest foods. And to be fair, once we left the seedy meat market and made our way downtown, it WAS fun to visit the city state’s monuments and structures before continuing our trip to Nepal.
Upon landing in Kathmandu, we met up with the third member of our group, Erin. Erin arrived with KK, the father of Erin’s Nepalese friend from Seattle. We climbed into KK’s car and headed to his house. Mike and I were to stay with KK for a few nights while Erin was staying with Kalpita, a childhood friend of KK’s daughter.
The start of our visit coincided with the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali. In prior research, Diwali impressed me as being quite similar to Christmas. Though I’m beginning to come around, I’m generally not a huge fan of Christmas (FYI – your collective gasps are audible), so I made the decision to turn in early while my companions traveled the city and enjoyed light displays and dancing with Nepalese children.
Because it was Diwali, the government agencies kept limited hours or were closed altogether. We understood that this would make getting our requisite Annapurna Circuit permits a bit difficult. However, we caught a break in that KK’s friend MJ, and MJ’s wife, operated a cottage industry travel agency. We went to MJ’s house and explained our trekking plans so that he could offer suggestions and guidance. Admittedly, I was significantly annoyed that my companions were extremely open to MJ’s recommended schedule changes because I had worked very hard to create a detailed, doable schedule. In retrospect, my plans and projections were very accurate, but dangerously optimistic about trekking times and the availability of public transportation at the beginning of the trek. So MJ’s advice and experience was undeniably helpful. However, when explaining and answering questions about distances and ETAs, MJ made sure to provide the time it would take us to hike between points, and the time it would take a Nepalese to cover the same ground. Of course, the Nepalese time was much shorter and we all gave him a polite chuckle each of the half dozen times that he pulled the trigger on this joke. I believe that he was unequivocally certain that Nepalese people are far better hikers than Westerners. Especially irksome about MJ’s beliefs was the vehemence with which he internalized this axiom.
As a fairly experienced hiker, I bristled at the notion that because I am a blonde-bearded (I suffer from male pattern baldness), blue-eyed, college educated American, I am categorically a weaker hiker than any Nepalese. And I felt that my feelings were justified when empirical evidence proved otherwise. Though not an exceptionally strong hiker by Pacific Northwest standards (I often lag towards the back on climbing expeditions), I carried about as much weight as the Nepalese porters on the Annapurna Circuit and hiked at their pace or better without struggling. So I assume that there are plenty of mountain-faring Americans who are stronger than the majority of Nepalese, and I couldn’t help compare my Nepal experience with my Kilimanjaro summit.
I hiked Kilimanjaro without a cook or a porter, just a guide. As such, my expedition pack was maxed out. The Tanzanians on the mountain often remarked that my pack was impressively heavy and once, as I reached the top of a small plateau, I threw my hands up in the air and yelled “Mzungu!” in the direction of a group of reclining Tanzanian porters and guides. They smiled and one said “Mzungu strong like lion” (“Mzungu” is the Swahili word for “surprise,” and they use it the way Mexican natives use “Gringo”). It felt good to receive that compliment, but compared to the Tanzanians, it was not true. Not by a longshot. The Tanzanians regularly carried loads heavier than mine in large, obscenely cumbersome sacks on their heads. At one point, while maintaining three or four points of contact, I cautiously and deliberately moved down a steep section of wet, slippery, loose rock accentuated by a small stream of running water. After about ten steps, I paused to allow two porters with full sacks on their heads pass, and then watched as the gentlemen quite literally bounced down terrain that I was unable to navigate without crawling. I was humbled and impressed.
To be fair to the Nepalese, our porters were working the Annapurna Circuit, which mostly consists of a very old trade route dotted with small villages and tea houses at regular intervals, which means that outside of the elevation (Thorong La is 17,769 feet above sea level) the Circuit is not very challenging. Perhaps if we compared the Nepalese mountaineers that set fixed lines on 8,000 meter peaks, they would stack up more favorably to the Tanzanians. But it also must be noted that the Tanzanians are not mountaineers as Kilimanjaro can be scaled with no special equipment and no special training. It too, is just a hike.
MJ arranged to have his wife collect our identification documents, forms and money and acquire the permits for us. I was a bit nervous that they might not take our need to get the permits the next day seriously which would result in having to re-think our entire schedule. My fears were allayed early in the day when we received the permits just before noon. MJ also secured a jeep to take us to Besi Sahar, which arrived a few hours later. Truthfully, I’m very confident that we could have acquired the permits and hired a jeep on our own, but it was expedient to have MJ play concierge. Thus, my recommendation for anyone traveling to Nepal and trekking one of the trails in November when government offices may have limited hours, or be closed altogether, is to budget enough time to get your permits, whether that be a couple of days if you hire someone to do it, or several days, if you plan on doing it on your own.
Nepalese children playing on a rooftop in the middle of Kathmandu.
Written by Tobias Cortese.