November 12 – 25, 2015
Oh man! Nepal is amazing. We both love it here. It is probably one of our favorite countries so far, and we are saying that after hanging out in the capital, Kathmandu, for two weeks. Normally, we would be antsy to get out of the busy, capital city of any country after a couple of days, but here, it doesn’t feel that way. It’s chaotic and busy and polluted, yes, but there is a different sort of vibe here. It is a mix of things: the Buddhist and Hindu temples and stupas on almost every street corner with incense lingering in the alleys, the stray dogs and monkeys meandering about, the lack of extreme wealth and materialism, the way the city slowly wakes up in the morning, the colourful saris of the women, the shabby buildings and rooftop terraces… all of it mixed together makes Kathmandu and exotic and engaging city to hang out in.
For those who like facts, here are three interesting and unique things about Nepal that we learned while we are here:
- It is currently the year 2073 in Nepal right now, based on the widely used Nepali calendar.
- Kathmandu (Nepal) time on a +0:45 min difference in terms of time zones. So if it is 8:00am in Halifax, it is 5:45pm in Kathmandu, which makes organizing phone call times very confusing!
- Nepal is one of the only countries in the world where two religions (Hindus and Buddhists) have lived side-by-side, peacefully, for centuries. Good stuff.
We have done some tourist sites, but most of my time and a bit of Steve’s time in Kathmandu has been spent volunteering with a rural women’s organization called RUWON, Nepal. RUWON, which stands for Rural Women’s Network, is exactly that: an organization that facilitates the networking of women using education, conferences, and advocacy in order to promote gender equality in Nepal, something that is slowly improving, but has a long way to go. Their main programs include education programs for women and girls, supporting an orphanage, providing materials to support victims in rural areas after the earthquake, micro-loan programs for women, and organizing national conferences focused on girls and women, to name a few of them. You can find more information about the organization on their website.
Volunteering with RUWON has been an interesting experience, not exactly what I expected, but that is usually a good thing when you are traveling. Steve was volunteering in the evenings, helping out with the after-school lessons they organize for needy girls attending the poorly-funded government schools in Kathmandu. I think they all loved his songs and silly games. I have spent my time working in their Kathmandu office in Kapan, working mainly on various grant/funding/UN applications. It started out slow, and I was a bit frustrated at the start because I didn’t really know where to start, but as I got to know Goma, Dhruba, and the organization better, I felt like I was filling a gap and helping them out where they really needed the help.
RUWON does a lot using its extremely meagre budget, and they have many connections and a long list of things that they want to do for the girls and women of Nepal. However, they are lacking in funding to follow through with many of these much-needed projects. There is so much need for their services everywhere, and I think it can be overwhelming… where to start?, who to help?, and how? There is always so much more to do in this type of field and many opportunities with RUWON should I find myself back in Kathmandu with a bit of time on my hands. We shall see… Overall, it turned out to but a great learning opportunity, and a really neat chance to get to know some locals on a personal level and how non-profit organizations in Nepal run. Now, our fingers are crossed that some of the grant money that we applied for get approved!
Other things we did in Kathmandu for our first two weeks here included the following:
- Hashing with the Himalayan Hash House Harriers: a ~16km intense run through the Southern ‘suburbs’/farmland of Kathmandu. Unlike most other hashes that we have joined, which tend to be fairly easy runs with lots of drinking, this hash was a lot more about the running, with longer, faster stretches between each hash hold and a lot more ‘racing’ between each stop. It was definitely a challenge (especially after the 1.5 hour hike with full packs and a 20km rough bike ride on the same day). I enjoyed it thoroughly, but I think Steve and his knees were a bit less impressed by the surprise 16km, though he got through it in the end. Also, I have to mention that all of the hashers themselves were extremely inviting and it was really enjoyable to be apart of the group for a run.
- Thamel: The downtown/very touristy district of Kathmandu is called Thamel. I think on a normal year it must be absolutely packed with foreigners, but this year (with tourism rates reportedly at ~25% of what they normally are) it was quite manageable and a very enjoyable place to stay for our time in the capital city. All of the tourist shops are right up our alley, whether they are outdoor gear shops, bookstores, music stores, or hippie-esque clothing and jewelry shops. Plus everything is super cheap, relative to Canada, with double rooms being about 7$CDN per night, a giant delicious meal for two for ~$15 CDN (drinks included), and 1-day bike rentals for ~$7CDN. There are also all the comforts you could want available here – bakeries, good internet connections, and Americanos, to name a few. So yes, Thamel, though touristy, has found its way into our hearts and we have enjoyed the many wanderings through its packed and winding streets and alleys.
- Durbar Square: Durbar Square, just south of Thamel, is a couple of downtown city blocks packed full of ancient palaces, temples, and statues from the (not so ancient) monarchy of Nepal. The architecture was very different from anywhere else we have been. Each level/story of some of the buildings (up to nine stories tall) is a different height, making the design very un-uniform and intricate/delicate looking at the same time. Sadly, lots of parts of the ancient palaces have collapsed from the 2015 earthquake and the bricks have just been stacked next to the old structures, waiting funding to be rebuilt. Also, before the earthquake, you were able to go inside the buildings, but they are now unstable and unsafe to enter, so you have to see the square from the outside only. Even so, it was a very interesting Nepal POI, and perhaps even more interesting to see how powerful and devastating the earthquake really was on all of the old buildings in the capital.
- Swayambhu (Monkey) Temple: This is a holy hill in the Kathmandu valley, covered with Buddhist and Hindu temples and monkeys. We walked here from Thamel for an easy morning trip, and it was a bustling place up top, with tourists snapping photos, hawkers bartering for souvenirs and incense, worshippers preparing offerings, and packs of monkeys swarming throughout the whole place, looking to grab a loose banana or bag of chips from any unobservant person. A unique and beautiful spot for sure.
- Shivapuri National Park: The final Kathmandu Valley tourist trip was to Shivapuri NP, just North of town. We packed our bags for a weekend camping trip and headed to the RUWON office Friday morning (~1.5 hour hike NE of downtown). Then I worked in the office throughout the day and Steve taught an after-school class in the evening. We spent the night at Dhruba’s house with his lovely family and ate delicious dal bhat for supper and crispy rice with bananas for breakfast. Then, Saturday morning we set out, following our cell phone map, towards the park. And once we got out of the valley and started up the mountain it was amazing – green, peaceful hills with meandering dirt trails.
We hiked for a solid 8 hours, up and up, above Kathmandu and its pollution, past Buddhist monasteries and nunneries, hill villages, and lots of beautiful, untouched forest scenery. We got to the top shortly before sunset, and we saw the Himalayan Mountains for the first time, which literally took our breaths away. “Holy shit! That’s bananas!”, I involuntarily shouted upon the first glimpse through the trees. We were about 100km away from the peaks, as the crow flies, with crystal clear views for the mighty Himalayas. It was a truly amazing view – there’s something about snow-capped mountains, especially the tallest mountains in the world, that make you feel so in awe and inspired, but also peaceful and at ease at the same time. After hiking many vertical steps all day with full heavy packs, the panoramas made it all worth it and definitely psyched us up for our upcoming trip to hike in the actual Himalayas. We camped at the very peak of Shivapuri (2,732m), with 360° views of the mountains to the north and Kathmandu (and its pollution) to the south – an amazing, non-touristy, weekend trip away from the bustle of the city.
One thing worth mentioning that almost made us not go on this amazing camping trip to Shivapuri was rumors/warnings of foreigners being robbed in the park. We were told not to camp from a couple locals, and were unable to find much information online, either about robberies or camping laws/safety. In the end, we decided to risk it, leaving our passports, most of our money, and valuables at the hotel, and everything turned out completely fine; and we must say that we felt very safe for the entire hike (Even with the group of rowdy, but harmless, teenage boys partying all night at the top. They ended up “knocking” on our tent at 1am, but it was only to beg for water for their too-drunk friend.)
I know that there is always a risk when you are camping, but it would have truly been a shame if these slightly over-exaggerated warnings had frightened us out of backpacking for the weekend. I guess it serves as a reminder to sometimes take these warnings (especially from people that do not hike/camp regularly) with a grain of salt; all traveling comes with risks, but you have to weigh these risks, take the precautions that you can, and not let it stop you from doing what you want*. So, lesson learned.
Now, we are just finalizing our trip to hike in the Himalayas and wrapping up work with RUWON. We can’t wait for this next adventure where we hike and camp our way around the Annapurna Mountain Range.
(*within reason and your experience of course)