If you had never heard of Nepal before this year (I get it, it's a tiny country on top of a huge one, they eat similar(ish) foods and look kind of similar (sort of) to their southern neighbour etc etc), then it will almost certainly be on your radar now. But probably not for the reasons that I am championing.
I love Nepal. When people ask me where my favourite places in the world are, Nepal is one of them. It may have something to do with my first trip there, a soothing balm of a week that followed my first harrowing India experience. But I think it probably has more to do with the wonderful, really wonderful, people and the spectacular natural beauty.
I can guarantee it has absolutely nothing to do with the public transport. This is one of those places where the public buses are both brain-frazzingly slooooowwwww and also, at points, truly terrifying.
But the awful, awful buses are really the only thing you will have to grit your teeth and get through in Nepal. And you will most probably meet some characters that will make it into your travel stories forever after. Or at least share their snacks with you.
Nepal is great. Really. I find myself smiling whenever I think back to any of my three trips there.
The first time Will visited Nepal -I was at home- and went trekking, he ate a 'Snickers momo'. This is essentially the best thing ever invented because it is a Snickers bar that is deep fried, then drowned in chocolate sauce. And if, for some reason that doesn't sound like the best thing of all time to you now, you will almost definitely change your tune after you have spent two weeks clambering around on some of the world's highest mountains. So the Nepali people are responsible for the greatest treat in the world. And after hearing Will rave about it, I knew I simply must try it when I arrived (only after some mountain clambering though- you have to earn that cholesterol). And it was every bit as good as I had hoped. And so when, on my third visit to this tiny little country, we went trekking with Will's brothers, we may have spent too much time glorifying the magic of the Snickers momo. The brothers were excited, we were excited, we had walked a couple of hundred kilometres, we had climbed to 5500 metres. We had earned it. On the way down the mountain, in every town we stopped in, we scanned the menus for this holy grail of treats. Our alarm grew with every passing day... Might we, god forbid, be unable to indulge in this spectacular concoction of diabetes? The thought was too much to bear. (Even the discovery of a place called YakDonalds- which we visited and which made an excellent burger- far outdoing another, less hilariously named burger joint- couldn't assuage our growing fear.) And so, in the last town we stayed in before we all agreed that we had walked for twelve days straight and that was probably our limit and could we not just catch a bus to Pokhara now please, we went into a restaurant that looked promising. (I actually think it was our desperation that we were seeing). Anyway, the Snickers momo was not on the menu. But! There was a beguiling little display of international chocolate bars under the glass at the till, and yes, Snickers was one of them. And here is where the Nepalese people really came through for us. Despite not really understanding our desperate pleas for a deep-fried Snickers bar, they listened to us, watched our mimes, heard the desperation in our voices, grabbed four chocolate bars and fifteen minutes later came out of the kitchen with four plates of steaming hot Snickers momos. Just fantastic really. Champions.
Where else would this happen? Probably other places, but I'm not sure I've been to them. (Actually, Turkey probably.)
Where else would a young lad see you standing at a local bus station with a shit ton of luggage, having no clue which bus you needed or even really where you were, and spend half an hour running to and fro for you to ensure that you got on your bus?
In what other third world country could you have a wee chat with a lady- who speaks perfect English- at a bus station about the dismally small size of chai in India compared to the generously sized glasses of the same price served in Nepal?
Nepal is a country where you can be a foreigner and ask a taxi driver how to get somewhere- just by walking, no taxi thanks- and they will actually tell you the truth. (In another larger, slightly more southern country, ahem ahem, this would be something akin to a miracle.)
There is also a lot of really good food, whether you are crouching on a tiny stool in a dusty, crowded market, hunched over a plate of really, really good chow mien (unlike any chow mien we have here- Nepalese people made this dish delicious) in a dingy hole in the wall cafe, trying to decide between a smorgasbord of curries in another tiny eatery that is only a little bigger than a kitchen table (really, this happened), or eating AH-MAY-ZING sushi in an upmarket sushi bar in Kathmandu. Is your mouth watering?
Kathmandu is, in your first days, an overwhelming mess of a city. Unpleasant, dirty and stifling. But we ended up spending about ten days there while we waited for our Indian visas (because, whoopsie, turns out all bureaucracy shuts down for the New Year holidays) and at some stage during our aimless wanderings of the city, we found that it is actually quite an endearing place. I have fond memories of Kathmandu, and that is not something I can say about many of the Asian capitals I have seen- and certainly not something I can say about really any cities in India.
I'm not even going to talk about the mountains because Google the Annapurna trail- go, Google it now... See? No words can match the feeling of being out there.
Sitting in my cold kitchen on this mid-winter morning, ignoring the fact that I have to be at work in an hour, I am really wishing I could drop everything and book a ticket to Kathmandu right now.
I think you should all visit this country. And I think you should visit this country now. Now is when Nepal needs the money we can provide, not only from donations and financial aid, but also simply from the touristy things we do when we visit a new place. Now, when it has been a few months since the incredible devastation of lives, go and show the Nepalese people that we haven't forgotten, we haven't given up on them. I'm pretty sure if you visit Nepal right now and do some volunteering, take some clothes, give some money- whatever you do- this will be an experience that stays with you forever.
If you do go now though, you will have to wait until September to go trekking in most places...
What better excuse for a few months of travel?
And now that I've convinced you to book that plane ticket- you're doing it now aren't you?- I feel like I should give you some actual travel tips... other than just how awesome it is and to eat a Snickers momo. So here you are:
STAY: In Kathmandu it depends... If you like shopping, western food (ahem, Nepal's take on western food), tuktuks and lots of other tourists then stay in Thamel. If you prefer none of those things and would rather just wander about the streets aimlessly without getting crashed into by said tuktuks, stay in Freak Street. It is right near Durbar Square- a wonderful people watching area which also has a not bad western coffee shop- and it is a lot more mellow. It is also where you'll find the kitchen table sized smorgasbord of amazing Nepali food. And if you can't decide, don't worry... it's only a twenty minute walk between the two, with lots of things to look at on the way.
In Pokhara, it doesn't really matter anymore. Probably head north up the lake, it will be a little quieter. But tourism is really on the rise in Pokhara and it is busy, expensive and not that charming anymore. But once you have spent a few weeks trekking, it is exactly what you will love (at least, we did).
While you are trekking, everywhere is really the same. Choose the place with the friendliest people and you're set.
EAT: Ummm, have you heard of the Snickers momo? But seriously now, most of the food is good. And it is all cheap. Like you will keep being amazed how cheap it is. Chow mien = can't really go wrong. Momos = best things ever (though stick to vego if you are uncertain of what stomach bugs lurk inside). Numerous other curries which you just have to choose and point to, because I have no idea what they are called. None of this really applies to trekking though. The food is not great- fair enough, you are really in the sticks- and dal bhat is the most sensible choice because you get a lot, it's filling and it's usually the most delicious thing on the menu. Definitely avoid western food while you are trekking. The fried Tibetan bread with cheese, when eaten at 5000 metres above sea level, is a little bit life changing.
Basically, when you are at ground level, follow the locals. Don't be scared (and if you are just stick to vegetables) and do try everything. And if you have been travelling for a while, the sushi bar near the Japanese Embassy in Kathmandu is killer. Drink too much chai. Go to the "German" bakeries and cake shops. They may not be German, but they make some pretty good treats (I still haven't ever found myself craving Nepalese or Indian sweets... they are just too teeth-achingly- and I say this in the most literal sense- sweet. And odd. Very odd). And don't ever order poached eggs. Just don't do it.
Nepal basics: covered. Now go, go and visit my favourite little country hidden in the mountains.