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  • Writer's pictureErin Paulsen

Nepal | A 2-week road trip

Updated: Jul 11, 2019

My trip through Nepal was an unusual one. I had managed to join forces with a group of friends who were headed there in order to make a documentary that would be played on a travel channel in Kerala, India.

We made an extremely long drive from Delhi to the border crossing with Nepal, which took us about 3 days. I had recently (stupidly) burnt myself on the engine of our motorcycle and was drugged up and recovering for this entire 3-day drive.

India- Nepal Border Crossing

When we arrived at the border we had to make exit stamps on the Indian side and then cross over and secure all kinds of papers, documents, travel passes and SIM cards that would carry us through the next 2 weeks of our journey.

This process took forever, naturally, and we spent our first night in a colorful little guest house just across the road from the border check point.

The drive to Kathmandu was a nightmare. The only way to reach the city was via an old and tiny road traversing the mountains and, to our dismay, under serious construction and subject to many a road block. A few of our group were on the motorcycles and tried to ride up ahead to scout out the severity of the traffic jam. It was severe. We abandoned our attempt to make it through that evening and found a room in the only hotel for miles. We were grossly overcharged for the night, but we had no other options.

The next day when traffic started to move again, we were in high spirits and enjoying the breathtaking views the mountain drive provided us. We stopped a few places along the way for chai, pulling into various mountain-top cafes which offered glorious panoramas of the valleys below.

We knew we were approaching the city when the air became hazy and choked with exhaust. Excluding my time in China, Kathmandu has some of the worst air I’ve ever tried to breathe. The city is a great one, however. Nestled cozily in the Kathmandu Valley, the city is surrounded on all sides by lush, green, rolling hills. Our first night there we stayed in a small bungalow-type residence perched high upon one of these hills and awoke the next morning to enjoy our coffee overlooking this rich natural landscape.

The documentary crew, I’m sorry to say, were some of the slowest moving people I’ve ever met. Leaving our lodge or arriving at any destination took ages and I was almost always low on patience.

We had been surviving for almost a week now on rice and omelets and I was in desperate need of something different to eat. My boyfriend and I made our way into the old town to find a Western-style meal I could devour. This downtown area, known as Thamel, is situated near Durbar Square where the historical royal complex and courtyards are. I found a lovely little café that caters to foreigners and ordered scrambled eggs, hash brown-style potatoes, a bowl of muesli, fruit and yogurt, as well as some toast and a giant cup of coffee. Things were looking up.

We spent a good bit of the morning scouting out different tour packages, drilling the company employees about prices to hike Mount Everest (despite having no actual plan to do so), and trying to gather as much useful information as possible so we could go ahead and plan a successful trip on our own.

Eventually we made our way to the most famous Buddhist temple complex in the city, known as Swayambhunath. The white stupas that sit atop the holy grounds are probably what you think of when Nepal crosses your mind (after Mount Everest, of course). There were not too many people around, but there was a good number of rangy monkeys running about trying to steal everything they could off of you. The site was way more impressive than anything you’ve seen in photos. A picture can always give you a feel for the way a place looks, but it can’t always give you a feel for the way the place… feels. In this case, the feelings were serene and of a delicately divine nature. The time that has passed and the number of people who have come to that site lighting their incense, spinning the prayer wheels and offering up their thanks and prayers to the Divine have created a sort of blanket around the place. A blanket of peace, a blanket of calm understanding.

It is always in these moments when you let yourself go just a little bit, that a deranged monkey will spring upon you and try to make off with whatever it is you have in your stupid little human hands. I can’t remember exactly what I was carrying, it could have been just a water bottle, but all of a sudden, I found myself actually fighting with a monkey. Usually when one is attacked by such a creature our human instinct is, for some reason, to just drop it and let the monkey win. Who wants to fight with a wild, sharp-toothed monkey? In this case, however, I found myself holding my ground and playing a sort of tug-of-war with this furry little creature. It was just a water bottle, in fact. I remember that I had been gifted said bottle not 5 minutes before and was not about to let the free refreshment get away in the hands of that little ape. I won, in the end. I also successfully gathered a crowd of onlookers, waiting to see who would come out victorious. I did!

After another day or two of driving around dusty, chaotic Kathmandu it was time for us to head Northwest. We were headed for Pokhara, famous for its paragliding, adventure sports, and rooftop views of the Himalaya.

Before we left India, someone had told us that roads in Nepal were actually much better in comparison with those of India. I’m not sure if this person flew around Nepal, but I can’t even begin to imagine where he got this idea. The roads in Nepal are small, winding, congested and full of potholes. The drive should, in theory, be around 6 hours. I’m not sure how long it took us to reach Pokhara, but we did have to call it quits for the night, after our afternoon departure, because we were all exhausted and tired of driving down these awful roads in the dark.

Naturally, it took us forever to leave again in the morning. We had wet clothes we were trying to dry, a few rocky cliffs that urgently needed to be scaled (for some reason), and of course, all of the equipment to pile on top of the car again.

I was on one of the bikes, and along with the freedom that a bike provides we decided not to keep up with the car and to sort of drive and stop and eat as we pleased. When we finally made it to Pokhara we were informed that our rooms for the night were in some small little guest house like 20 kilometers up a hill on the far side of the town, where you could get stunning views of the mountains in the morning. The rooms were basic, as was the entire lodge, but we managed to cook ourselves up a feast, make a disaster of the common area and to fill our stomachs with as much food as we could.

No matter how lowly your accommodation is on a budget trip, you are almost always too exhausted for it to matter when it comes time to go to bed, and you fall into deep sleep regardless of where it is exactly you are sleeping. So it was on this night, sleeping soundly in a small musky little room with no heat and outside temperatures of about 10 degrees.

The mountain views in the morning were very impressive. To my surprise, this was in fact one of the highlights of coming to Pokhara (the sunrise mountain scape) and all of the neighboring rooftops had magically filled up with other tourists eager to spot the pristine white peaks. We crossed the little street our guest house was on and clambered up on to the rooftop of the building opposite ours. I think the building was abandoned, and therefore no one gave us any trouble for being on their roof at 6 o’clock in the morning.

The days sort of all mix together when you’re travelling for weeks on end, and sometimes it’s difficult to recall in exactly which order things happen. Sometime over the next few days we decided to go bungy jumping, randomly got invited to a Hindu wedding that was happening in a neighboring village, made friends with the villagers, and invited ourselves to set up a small camp outside where they all lived. They had no problem with us staying nearby for the night, but they did warn us that the area was known to have wild tigers wandering about and that we should be careful. How one plans to be careful when camping in tiger-prone areas I never did understand, but we managed to stay the night under the stars without any scary incidents.

Myself and the mother of the Groom in the village where we set up our camp

Our camp was about as minimal as it gets. We had one giant tarp, a few bamboo poles, 3 sleeping bags (for 7 people) and a giant sheet that we laid down under the tarp. We did have one small tent that could fit 1 or 2 people, which I claimed immediately, as it got down to around 5 degrees Celsius at night and I am incapable of tolerating the cold. To my dismay, however, the tent reeked of kerosene and I must have inhaled more fumes during the night than the culmination of which I’ve breathed through the rest of my life. A few of the group members couldn’t handle the cold temperatures, called it quits, and invited themselves to sleep in some of the homes of the villagers, who didn’t mind at all.

Mohammed and I awoke before the rest of the group and decided to hike down the cliffside to the river below to freshen up. I washed my face and brushed my teeth, while he was brave enough to jump completely into the cold, rushing waters and take a full and proper bath. There’s something so freeing, so natural and simple about washing in a river. It’s way more rejuvenating that cleaning yourself in a nasty bathroom sink. The others eventually woke up, realized we were down by the water, wanted to hike down too, took forever to do whatever it was they wanted, and then to meet us back up at the campsite again. We had magically accumulated tons of stuff and it took us a couple hours to pack it all up again. An impromptu decision by the group leader to go paragliding that same day had us rushing about and running to the top of another hill trying not to miss the last take off window of the morning. The availability of paragliding is at the whim of the weather, and the conditions are usually not suitable after a certain hour, so again, we were in a rush to make it to our next location.

Which we did, thankfully. About half of the group decided they would be the ones paragliding, while the rest of us would film their take off, and then hop back in the car and meet them down at the landing point about half an hour later. Let me just go ahead and say that watching everyone (not only those from our group) take off for paragliding is hilarious. Everyone is given very clear instructions of what to do and what not to do, yet despite these pointers people run and jump and tumble their way off the cliff side anyhow. I can only imagine how annoying this must be for the guides who accompany the tourists on their flights. After the paragliding fun everything becomes a bit blurry. We knew we had to make it back across to the other side of the country near the border with India, around the Darjeeling area. Again, on one of the bikes, Mohammed and I sort of made our own way to Ilam, the Nepalese tea plantation haven. We drove quickly, we drove slowly, we stopped and walked through markets and festivals, even invited ourselves into a villager’s quaint little home. The drive was a long one, and we ended up dividing it over 2 or 3 days. Each evening our group divided into 3 smaller groups scouting out places to sleep for the evening. It’s not always easy to juggle what your budget allows for and the comforts that you desperately need after riding on a motorcycle for 12 hours, but we almost always managed to find a place that was… decent.

Riding and riding, singing into the breeze, there is little in life that is more freeing than cruising down an endless road on the back of a motorcycle. I suppose actually driving the motorcycle can also be quite freeing, but in a different way. When you are the one driving, your thoughts are limited to the road. You must pay very careful attention to everything that is going on around you, and your concentration is steady on the asphalt, or gravel, or dirt in front of you, depending on where in the world you are driving. When you are on the back of a bike, however, it’s like you are in a real-life movie. You have the freedom to watch everything that passes you by, to wave and smile at the children playing near the street, and to (carefully) take photos of what passes you by. You can sing and rest your head and admire the landscapes that surround you. What I mean to say here is that despite the serious pain inflicted on my sit bones from all this driving, it was a wonderful 72-something hours traversing the country.

Once we drew nearer to Ilam, the landscape changed dramatically. We had been covering long, flat, dusty terrain and were all of a sudden met with lush, green, dewy tea plantations. The air grew chilly, our elevation was increasing, and the need for a jacket (or two or three) became dire. We stopped a few times for Nepal’s famous MoMo (dumplings), and to catch a break and a breather in the crisp and humid air. Our find-a-place-to-stay adventure soon began again, and we were winding aimlessly around the hills looking for a guesthouse that could accommodate all 7 of us for the evening.

The place we did end up finding was owned by the sweetest Nepalese family who all treated us like just that, family. We were invited immediately into the kitchen to help prepare a meal for our lunch. The kitchen was actually a small room detached from the rest of the house and fully equipped with two fire pits, stools enough for all of us to sit around, an extensive collection of teas and herbs and spices, as well as the family’s own home-made alcohol.

We spent a little time here filming for the documentary, but most of the time was spent just relaxing. We were in a peaceful environment and nearing the end of our trip, and we were all keen to just relax among the tea fields. We chatted, drank tea, ate freshly made food and had an impromptu dance lesson with the locals one evening. They were trying to teach us traditional Nepalese dance moves, but the whole affair turned into a sort of free-style dance party instead.

The morning of our departure was, you guessed it, slow moving. We spent half of the day trying to decide if we did, in fact, want to leave that little paradise or to stay again another night. Approximately 2 hours before sunset we decided that we were going to go ahead and start the trip to the border with India. There were a few arguments over who would ride on the bikes down the hills, and I think this one I actually lost. For some time. Then I made my way back on the bike and we all raced against the sunset to the border town.

So this is how it goes, when you are slow moving and ill-prepared. We arrived at the border, only to find that it was closed for the evening. We arrived around 7pm and the border closes daily at 6. So once more our favorite quest for lodging began. This border town is not such a hospitable place and we stayed our final night in Nepal in an overpriced, nasty (yet spacious) hotel room.

Headed back to the border with India

One final slow-moving morning and we made it to the border, crossed back into India and into the rubbish. The contrast at any border crossing with India is impressive. How the garbage manages not to spill across the confines amazes me, it’s almost as if there is an imaginary electric fence that deflects all the bags and bottles back onto the Indian side of the line.

Anyway, we made it. We all survived, if only barely. And it was time to move on again.

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