Travelling independently using public transport
(together with my wife)
TERM: 28.10. - 28.11. 2010
Nepal has became one of the most popular destinations for adventurous tourists wanting to venture outside the Western world - and rightly so, as it has lots to offer: not only it features one of the world highest mountain ranges not too remote from the areas quickly accessible by modern means of transport, but it also contains some interesting game reserves (e.g., population of tigers in the Chitwan NP is one of the healthiest in the world), lots of very interesting historical sites and monuments, and, last but not least, very colourful and diverse human population. In addition, due to a long tradition of tourist travels to this destination, the Nepalese - besides being pleasantly friendly by nature - are well accustomed to the needs of tourists, which makes travelling around Nepal quite easy as all the desired services are already well established. Nepal can be travelled both with one of many efficient travel companies capable to secure all required goals (up to getting their client to the summit of Mt. Everest) or totally independently, and can be thus considered a school for beginning travellers where there is no problem to get an efficient help when become tangled.
This was my second trip to Nepal after some ten years and I was rather interested how the things changed (my previous visit was in 1999 when the popular king, next to the last, was still in power). Well, the mountains are still there and the people are still so friendly and helpful as before, but I was quite shocked by a rather unbelievable deterioration of Nepal environment - fortunately it does not concern the Himalayan national parks, where the majority of trekking routes are laid out (actually, situation had got even somewhat better there as the earlier wood-based cooking in the trekking lodges was generally banned and replaced by kerosene- or gas-powered burners, which helped to preserve the woods), but the general level of pollution, esp. around Kathmandu exceeded anything I had ever encountered anywhere in the world (instead of sacred cows, the streets of Kathmandu are now filled with very plain and awfully noisy and smelling motorbikes) - that, together with the general Global Climate Change, markedly changed the weather patterns all around Nepal and so within November, when the air should have been clear and the mountain views unobscured, we encountered a frequent haze and even some rain. Throughout the report I have put some remarks comparing the situation in 2010 with that in 1999 - these notes are primarily meant as clues for people considering to come back to Nepal after similar gap with the aim to help them to figure the kind of difference they may expect to encounter; I am afraid that these remarks may quickly become somewhat annoying for new prospective visitors of Nepal and so I recommend to them to better skip these notes (the comparison does not come out too favourably for the later date).
Transport: Public transport in Nepal is relatively efficient but suffers from a very bad status of Nepal roads.
1. We flew to Kathmandu and back with Qatar Airways which fully lived up to their reputation - all four flights (we flew from Italy via Doha) were serviced by very modern planes with individual monitors available at each seat (selection of movies was almost endless), the flights were on time and generally OK, leg space little above average, staff attendance swift and efficient, and the served food was the best I had ever encountered with any airline.
2. For transport within Nepal we mainly used public buses, which were quite cheap and running to any place connected by anything reminding a road of any sort. Unfortunately, even the principal roads connecting main cities were in quite terrible state of disrepair caused by a prolonged period of civil war fought in Nepal until recently. Thus a passage between any two even moderately remote places inevitably takes considerable part of a day. The buses are typically very crowded indeed and not only inside but there is usually quite a few people travelling on the roof (it is not bad at all to travel on the roof, as you get really luxury views, but you need to be careful of low lying wires and tree branches and expect to be asked to cram inside the bus before some of the police checkposts - travelling on the roof seems to be technically forbidden but the roof clearing and remounting is typically done in a clear view of the particular checkpost and so the law is obviously being satisfied just for effect); it may require quite a fight to get into a bus when trying to get into a passing bus along its route. When travelling from the place where the bus starts its route it is generally possible and recommended to buy your ticket at least a day before at the bus company "office" (hardly more than a simple booth or garage-style cubicle) or through a travel company, which gives you a possibility to choose a specific seat (typically, the views are much better on one of the bus sides so choose wisely - beware that the seats are usually numbered separately on each side of the bus). In general, the closer to the front of the bus the better as the Nepal road surface is often very rough; yet, it may be better to stay away from the very front seats as well - on the bus from Pokhara to Phedi, Naya Pul, and Beni we have witnessed an extremely absurd behaviour of local womenfolk (the men were on the roof so they may be the same) who insisted on standing right next the bus doors even though the rest of the bus aisle was empty and even some seats were vacant; we have been assigned to the first row of seats behind the door, where we had a space to also store our packs, and those women were gradually shelving their bags and children on our laps and eventually tried to sit themselves there as well, esp. when some poor passengers were trying to pass trough their bunch from the bus rear - the requests of the bus conductor asking them to move on to the bus rear had no effect and so we unnecessarily got very painful ride (I have never witnessed so incredibly irrational behaviour of human beings before); anyway, to avoid the same experience I suggest you better ask for some third or fourth road of seats as it would be too far from the doors for these nuts to venture if you happen to run into them. The Nepal roads are extremely dusty outside the rain season and it may be a good idea to take along to the bus a headscarf or even a face mask (as often done even by locals) to give a break to your air passages. The buses travelling along the longer routes usually make some toilet or dining stops along their journey but there seems to be no regularity or system in these stops, which probably depend just on the driver and passengers mood.
3. Besides the ordinary public buses there exist also the so called "tourist buses" which provide transport between Kathmandu, Pokhara, and Chitwan NP. These are slightly more expensive and usually served by somewhat better buses, their tickets are sold by travel agencies giving one a somewhat better guarantee of having one’s own seat, and hit the road not much later than promised. Still, even these "tourist buses" are mainly used by ordinary Nepalese and had no problem to take some extra standing passengers and stop for them anywhere along their way. So again, try to avoid the bus rear end (reminding a roller coaster in rough parts of the journey) but better also the very front seats as well. The tourist buses make one or two dining stops along their journey that may take place in a spot with a good choice of restaurants and food stalls but also in a spot with a single restaurant taking advantage of its monopoly by serving a pre-cooked and overpriced food, so better take some snacks along to avoid being ripped off in such arrangement.
4. Some remote places may be connected to Kathmandu by a minibus service (we encountered such service in Tansen), which may claim of providing all kinds of luxuries like an air-conditioned vehicle but is most probably lying - there is no other luxury besides the higher price for the tickets and the vehicle is again stopping anywhere along the way to take extra passengers to fill the vacant seats or any place they are willing to sit. Try to get the front seat (for good views and guaranteed space) or at least the seats in the minibus back rows - the otherwise promisingly looking first row behind the driver is the place where the minibus baggage handler/handlers and any extra passengers are being crammed.
5. In the cities you may use public transport or simply resort to taking a taxi. There is a relatively dense public transport in Kathmandu but it is naturally not always easy to find out how to use it - if you cannot get clear information on the public transport covering your route it is generally better to stick to a taxi. As it is typical in the developing countries, the taxis do not use meters and you need to settle the price for your ride before getting in - the taxi drivers usually quote rather high asking price so try to find out ahead what is the proper price for your route (check out your guidebook, look around on the internet, and/or ask in your hotel) or start haggling with offering half of the asking price. In flat areas of southern Nepal the taxi services are also provided by cyclo rickshaws, but surprisingly these are normally not any cheaper than auto taxis (at least in Kathmandu), which makes this kind of transportation not esp. appealing (esp. in the terrible air pollution of Kathmandu); again, the price needs to be settled in advance.
Accommodation: The conditions of accommodation were very different in the lodges we used when trekking and in the budget hotels used in cities and other places.
1. While trekking we were sleeping in the lodges located in convenient distances along the main trekking routes. The frequency and quantity of the lodges varies substantially for different trekking routes and even different parts of them - there is less lodges in higher altitudes, esp. above about 2500 m a.s.l., where there are no normal local settlements and the lodges are there chiefly to accommodate the trekkers. The quality and prices of the rooms are by contraries more or less stable and their rates are always dead cheap indeed - typical rate is some 200NRs per double room but even that is often discounted to 100NRs or even exempted on condition that you eat all your meals in your lodge to bring the money to the owner (this price of food is what brings the difference and it typically varies substantially depending on popularity of the given route and the altitude or remoteness from the nearest road). Breakfast price is never included within the room rate in the described trekking lodges. The simple rooms in the budget lodges are typically just bare cubicles with two beds, sometimes a table, and rarely a chair; in case that all the double rooms are taken you may be offered to sleep in a dormitory with some five or more beds but you would likely get it for yourself and pay the same price as for double room. In the highly prevailing budget lodges the bathroom is always shared and normally consists in a toilet bowl or rarely a squat toilet and some sort of a shower either in a single room or in the separated rooms. You are always requested not to put toilet paper into the toilet but into a provided special garbage can; almost always some outfit for using the Asian/African water-cleaning method is also provided. Sometimes and rather unpredictably there may be a hot water shower available in usual bathroom or in a separate room; if there is no hot water shower you may be able to get a bucket of hot water on request - beware that the price for both the hot water shower or the hot water bucket may be included in your room price but you may be also asked to pay an extra price for it, so always ask to avoid surprises. There is no heating in the rooms and so - if you are not equipped with a very good sleeping bag or especially good internal heating - better avoid bigger rooms and especially corner rooms with many windows, which you will find difficult to keep them warm by your breathing (Note: this was the first time I was enjoying the luxury of the so called "tea-house trekking" as I slept in my own tent during my previous visit - while I of course enjoyed the chance not to have to drag a tent along I did realized with a surprise how much warmer it felt to sleep in my cozy tent). All feeding and other social activities take place in a lodge common dining room, which is typically somewhat heated, either by proximity of a kitchen only or even with some additional stove. In simpler lodges the electricity may be available just for a limited time period or not at all and so do not forget to take along a good flashlight (it may come handy even in cities as the supply of electricity in Nepal is erratic and interrupted). Also beware that the partitions between the rooms in the trekking lodges are typically very thin and so you may appreciate to have your ear plugs handy in case that occupants of the adjacent rooms snore heavily or prefer partying or loud chatting to sleeping. We were travelling in high season and it proved that it may be not always easy to find a room at higher parts of the most popular routes (the Annapurna Sanctuary trek in our case) where offer of rooms is somewhat limited and the rooms are booked ahead by organized trekking groups, with their guides calling ahead to their next destinations and pre-booking all available spaces - on two occasions we thus ended in dormitories (yet, all available just to us) and there was always an option to sleep on the benches in the lodges dining rooms, as it was routinely done by the guides and porters. We were using our own sleeping bags but you can probably survive just on the blankets provided in the rooms; almost always there is no problem to get an extra blanket (yet, there was an exception of the Gangapurna View Lodge, where we could not get more than the basic thin blanket - of course, this was the only place when we could have actually used a good extra blanket).
2. In cities, we were sleeping in budget hotels typically with rooms for about USD10-15. In general, the room rates are very diverse and depend on the locality, competition, season, and your luck and negotiation skills - for the money mentioned you can sometimes get a quite large room with your own bathroom included and even a TV, or otherwise just a small bare cubicle with some beds only and a shared bathroom somewhere in the lobby. The price may or may not depend on occupancy, so you may be asked to pay for extra beds in your room. If the bathroom is attached to the room, it normally consists in a toilet bowl or a squat toilet and a shower in a single separate room; the shared bathroom is either the same combination or more often the toilet and shower are in separated cabins. Again, you are often requested not to put toilet paper into the toilet due to possible plumbing problems (but it was not the case of Kathmandu) and a separate garbage can is provided to dispose of the paper; almost always some outfit for using the Asian/African water-cleaning method is provided. Hot water shower is typically available in cold areas in the north incl. Kathmandu; in warmer south you often get a fan and even mosquito net instead. There are always some mosquitoes around there and lots of them in southern lowlands, like the Chitwan NP - we have been using repellent in colder places (as we slept there well covered in our sleeping bags) or otherwise our own mosquito net (it was sometimes rather difficult to find a place to attach the net but I have made two additional loops to our net allowing us to make a tent-like structure out of it and hang it down from a low-lying rope attached to some suitable points like picture hooks or door/window hinges). Breakfast is not provided with the room rate in the described kind of rooms and hotels. We were travelling in high season but still have not find it very difficult to find an available budget room in the location of our choice - nevertheless, it did need some effort and searching around in Kathmandu and Pokhara.
Food: Food in Nepal is real delight - the best in the world in my opinion. Owing to their long tradition of catering to Western tourists the Nepalese have learnt to cook the food exactly to our taste and offer the menu very much suiting our desire. All the food offered both in tourist restaurants and trekking lodges is freshly cooked, the choice is rather wide, portions generous, and the food is usually very good and safe; due to the Indian and Tibetan origin of the offered meals there is no problem at all to stick to a vegetarian food, which is moreover very tasty and available in a good variety (we are not vegetarians ourselves but when in such "exotic" countries we generally prefer to resort to vegetarian food to avoid problems). As for the water, the bottled water is sold everywhere - yet, we now switched to using tap water treated with our own chlorine-based disinfectant and mixed with the Tang drink powder, which we found to be a very good replacement for buying an overpriced water or soft drinks and producing waste adding to the typical problem of developing countries with no established plastic recycling system.
1. While trekking you will have no problem to get a very good food in any of the lodges located all along the main trekking routes. The choice is almost as good as in Kathmandu or Pokhara and the taste is excellent - it is quite incredible what are the Nepalis capable to prepare with so limited equipment represented by one or two kerosene- or gas-powered burners (I remember an occasion at Deorali high on the Annapurna Sanctuary trek, where from such a two-burner kitchen they served all in the same time about 15 different meals ordered individually from the menu by a staying trekkers group and got unanimously praised by their satisfied clients - incredible, cooks in any Western country would not be probably able to produce a decent tea under such conditions). The neighbouring lodges along the trekking routes usually operate under a price agreement meaning that they have fixed food prices and all use the same menu - the only negotiable item on the menu is thus the room rate, which is often greatly discounted or even fully exempted on the understanding that you eat all your meals in the lodge where you are staying. These agreements do take into account higher expenses needed to transport the provisions to places located in higher altitudes and/or more remote from the nearest road - either the lodges spread along the climbing trekking route operate under the same price agreement while presetting the price increase with the altitude (used, e.g., on the route from Langtang to Gosaikund lake), or more often there are different price agreements concerning only several neighbouring lodges and setting higher prices proportional to the altitude and remoteness of the lodges concerned (used, e.g., along the Annapurna Sanctuary trail); still, the prices remain very reasonable, perhaps with an exception of the most remote locations (we did resort to soups at the lodges located within the Annapurna Sanctuary where the prices got rather high). The menu typically featured several kinds of tea (very good and cheap with prices not so dependent on the altitude) and soft drinks, several kinds of soup, and, e.g., fried rice and noodles - vegetarian and chicken, momo, various sandwiches, pizza, spring rolls, etc.; rather surprisingly for me, the "dal bhat" - thereby the Nepal staple food, was always the most expensive item on the menu. The food incl. breakfast can be served any time of the day on request. Regarding the provisions, not much is available (e.g. some biscuits and soft drinks) and naturally for rather high prices; the bottled water is generally available but it is, of course, not cheap - in higher altitudes above the human settlements there should be no problem to drink untreated tap water brought in directly from the mountain streams.
2. In places frequented with tourists (like Kathmandu, Pokhara, or Sauraha near the Chitwan NP) there is a great variety of tourist oriented restaurants of all price levels with the same menu as in the trekking lodges or much wider; the prices in budget restaurants are typically somewhat cheaper than in the trekking lodges. Beware that a 10% service fee is sometimes added to the price given on menu, which is usually - but not always - noted in a small print on the menu. As for provisions, the bottled water, soft drinks, seasonal fruits and vegetables, and general bakery are available in few food shops and/or stalls in the city centers and there are also bakeries selling their own products which are usually quite good and tasty and not too expensive - yet, it may not be always easy to find these shops.
Money: The local currency is called Nepalese Rupee (NRs). We solely used cash withdrawn from ATMs using our debit cards - there was not too difficult to get the cash but majority of Nepal banks has a very low withdrawal limit of 10,000NRs and some of them accept only the VISA cards and not the MasterCard; we used one of the ATMs located just next the Kathmandu airport international departures exit and mainly the Citizens Bank ATM located on Thahiti Tole in Thamel, Kathmandu - these were both giving at least 15,000NRs but accepted VISA cards only. There is generally no problem to get money out of those many ATMs in Kathmandu or Pokhara but not in many places beyond there - still, in these other places there would be no problem to find a money changer and change some cash, esp. U.S. dollars.
Internet: There is no problem to find an internet place with a good connection in any place where there are any tourists or any civilization. Yet, there is of course no chance for it in the villages along the trekking routes.
Timing: We have been to Nepal in November, i.e. in the period which used to be the best time for trekking due to a dry weather with no rain and clean air guaranteeing perfect views of the mountains (as it was the case during my previous visit). Unfortunately, things are not so simple nowadays in these times of the Global Climate Change - we have actually encountered some rain even when trekking in the Himalayas and the views were more often than not obscured with thick clouds (it was rather surprising even for porters on the Annapurna Sanctuary trail and many of them had hard time while walking with no protection from rain - actually, also the sleeping bags they were carrying for some trekkers had no waterproof covering and their users must have had not so good time when using them). We did not get almost any mountain views from Kathmandu or Pokhara and even other places otherwise known for good views (like Dhulikhel or Tansen) but was at least lucky enough to encounter heavier rain only when coming back down from the Annapurna Sanctuary.
Trekking regulations: After some period of rather liberal rules with no bureaucracy (till 1998 everybody had to get a so-called trekking permit) the situation is worsening again for individual trekkers preferring to trek independently. For majority of established trekking areas (called the "restricted areas") it is necessary to buy a rather high-priced trekking permit and all trekkers have to be accompanied by a guide. This leaves only three areas left for truly independent trekking where one can go alone and for no extra fee: the Langtang/Helambu area, Everest Region, and Annapurna Region. Yet on the top of it, a recent addition requires for everybody to buy the so-called TIMS (Trekkers Information Management System) card - it is pretended to be introduced to increase safety of trekkers by making it easier to find them if they get into trouble (one has to outline one's trek itinerary on the card) but I would not count on any help from the Nepal government in such case - the TIMS is clearly meant just to extract some extra money and discourage trekkers from trekking independently by asking higher fee from them and bringing them extra troubles with getting this card; if planning more treks in different areas one needs an extra TIMS card for each trek; fortunately, no TIMS is yet needed when trekking outside the popular trekking routes, like around Kathmandu Valley. When trekking with travel agency it provides the TIMS for you within your package deal (in such case you pay USD10 for it) but when you plan to trek independently (and even if you take an individually hired guide/porter, if I understand the rules correctly) you have to pay USD20 (actually, an equivalent of this sum in Nepalese Rupees) and reputedly obtain it by yourself at the offices of the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) or Trekking Agencies Association of Nepal (TAAN) either in Kathmandu or Pokhara; it is not so easy to find these offices open (the TANN is supposed to be open every day incl. holidays but we found its office in Kathmandu closed on ordinary Friday at 11am) and you may waste quite some time to secure your TIMS card - if you need more TIMS cards for several treks definitely get all of them at once if you ever manage to find an open counter. Fortunately, we found a rather unofficial but efficient and clearly tolerated way how to obtain this "independent" TIMS card without a necessity to hunt for it (sure the offices are not located anywhere near the tourist area of Thamel in Kathmandu) using services of a travel agency - I was told many times it was not at all possible but we managed to find, via the LP Thorn Tree, a travel agency willing to get us all the needed papers and they did it exactly as promised. It was the Ganga Jamuna Adventure Treks agency (www.gangajamunatreks.com, +977-1-4700357; located on the right side in the middle of the small street connecting Thamel Chowk to the street where the famous Kathmandu Guest House was located) that got us the needed TIMS cards within one afternoon - in fact, they got us those USD10 "agency" TIMS cards (the two kinds clearly differ by color and the price paid is printed on them) but we still paid USD20 in cash to the agency (the price difference was their only profit) and they just formally put on the cards a phone number for us to call in case of trouble; we were rather nervous that we may get in trouble on check posts while trekking alone with these cards but - as they told us - nobody shown any concern at all and we completed both our treks with no difficulties (we have been checked two times on our Langtang/Helambu trek and three times on the Annapurna Sanctuary trek); the same agency was also able to get us our bus tickets to Syabrubesi and to Pokhara on a very short notice for no extra charge and I can recommend its services with no hesitation. Besides the trekking permit (if needed) and the TIMS card, it is also necessary to pay for some reasonably priced entrance permits to the national parks/conservation areas established along the routes of the popular treks - these permits may be bought either at the same offices as the TIMS card or at the check points located on the trekking trails near their border (the usual price is 1000NRs per person; the price for the Annapurna Region is 2000NRs per person and beware that this fee is doubled to 4000NRs when buying this permit only at a check point instead of in the offices - we got our permits for this area also secured by the Ganga Jamuna Adventure Treks agency for no extra cost).
Safety and pestering: We have found Nepal very safe and friendly - violent crime is very rare both in cites and when trekking and even petty crime is not a problem if taking usual precautions. People are usually very friendly and willing to help when asked and English is widely understood in the areas visited by tourists. As for pestering, it does exist but normally does not exceed usual pursuits of shop-keepers or rickshaw drivers; rather annoying may become sometimes quite insistent requests of all kinds of beggars asking for money (I strongly believe one should never give money or anything to these people as these gifts solve nothing and make them to believe that begging is a way how to live instead of finding some sustainable way; now quite flourishing South Asian countries are an example that there is a self-sustaining way out for even the poorest parts of the world).
Shopping: Nepal offers as a bonus a possibility to buy quite cheap but often good quality outdoor equipment in many specialized shops in tourist centers of Kathmandu (Thamel and around Bodhnath) and Pokhara. The quality of the equipment does differ and so it is necessary to check it thoroughly but even on a good quality items you can save a lot of money - you can buy things like fleece jackets, windbreakers, anoraks, sleeping bags, backpacks, trekking poles, and all kinds of small gears for trekkers. Beside that it is also possible to buy cheap and good quality pashmina pullovers and nice porcelain from China (around Bodhnath - there you can also buy a sack of genuine Tibetan tsampa, roasted barley flour constituting the fundament of Tibetan diet). Also very good and cheap is the Nepal tea which is not sold abroad but can compete with the best teas coming from India or Sri Lanka - beware that the tea is normally considerably cheaper when bought outside of Thamel (we can recommend the Nepal Tea House on a short street connecting Kathmandu Durbar Square and New Road close to the Freak Street).
General impression: Nepal continues to be one of the easiest destinations for independent travellers as the naturally friendly Nepal people are well accustomed with needs of tourists and their importance for local economy and are very capable to organize any kinds of activities you may come up with. On the negative side there is a terrible state of the roads making transfers rather painful (but there is some roadwork in progress and this problem may decrease in near future) and especially not too clever effort of the leftist Nepal government to quickly squeeze extra money from tourists and strengthen their control of all tourist business (few years ago they tried to introduce the regulation totally forbidding trekking without authorized guides and gave up only after loud protests from trekking lodge owners understandably fearing of monopolization of whole business by the biggest lodges capable to pay commission to the over-mighty mandatory guides) - this latter tendency is not likely to end soon and clearly has a potential to spoil Nepal for independent tourists (better visit now, I guess ...). There are also some efforts to open for trekkers the now rather inaccessible West Nepal, which may by contraries find a new areas suitable for adventurous trekkers - yet these efforts are so far blocked by total absence of any roads in this area making it necessary to use expensive air transport to get there. One thing difficult to miss is an alarming level of pollution to be encountered especially in the Kathmandu valley and represented by an airborne dust but also classical smog - it tops everything I have encountered anywhere in the world and forces even locals to regularly wear face masks (after spending about a week in and around Kathmandu it did take some time for us after our return to Europe to to get our lungs cleared and get rid of persistent dry cough).
We have done a five-day trek in the Langtang National Park without using any guides or porters and liked it a lot. This area is somewhat less visited by tourists, esp. by large groups organized by travel agencies, and offers a good possibility to both enjoy mountain sceneries of not so distant mountain ranges of the Langtang and Ganesh Himal reaching over 7000 m a.s.l. (ten years ago, while sleeping near Laurebina Yak, I was even amazed by an incredibly bright golden shine of the first morning sun reflected on the distant summits of Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, and Manaslu, towering over 8000 m a.s.l., but such treat seems to be beyond possibility in these times of the Global Climate Change and omnipresent air pollution) and observe the rural life in many villages of Helambu region. The middle sections of the trek between some 2500 and 3000 m a.s.l. pass through very nice pine and rhododendron forest, often covered by mosses and/or lichens, whilst still lower sections below 2500 m a.s.l. pass through many villages and along terraced fields crammed to all places where they might have been established at all. To find our way we were relying mainly on the LP Trekking-in-the-Nepal-Himalaya guide and found it quite accurate and useful; when in doubts there was no problem to ask about the way (quite needed in the Helambu area crisscrossed by many trails - yet, at forks we could often see on the ground some arrows pointing the right direction as left by passing trekking groups) - all people we met were friendly and helpful.
Trek itinerary: Our plan was to have a look at the opening of the Langtang valley (it is possible to trek for several days along the bottom of this narrow valley) and then climb to Gosaikund lake and over the near pass of Laurebina La (4610 m a.s.l.), reach Tharepati, and continue down along the Melamchi Khola valley to Thimbu; ten years ago I have done a similar trek starting from Dhunche, crossing Laurebina La to Tharepati, and then continuing down along the ridge to Sundarijal. Nowadays it is a tea-house trekking all the way but ten years ago there were no lodges available between Laurebina Yak and Tharepati and the tent I was using that time was much needed (lodges at Gosaikund lake were closed for winter then). The two alternative trails beyond Tharepati give a possibility to sample different cultures of Nepal because the Shivapuri ridge leg is populated mostly by Hindu Brahmins and Chhetris while the Melamchi Khola valley leg is populated mostly by Tibetan Buddhist Yolmos (more or less for marketing reasons they call themselves "Sherpas" but in fact have nothing to do with the real Sherpas living in the Everest region); these two trails together form the culturally interesting Helambu circuit. As always in the high mountains it is necessary to take care about proper acclimatization and this is actually rather difficult in the Himalayas noted for the steep slopes allowing trekkers to gain the altitude very quickly; the generally safe rate of ascent above 3000 m a.s.l. is not to sleep more than 500 m higher than previous night if not used to the given altitude due to a not too far-back previous trek (it also helps to climb somewhat higher in the evening, even without any load, before descending for night). We started late afternoon from the small village of Thulo Bharkhu (2140 m a.s.l., about half an hour by bus beyond Dhunche) and slept consecutively at Brabal (2200 m a.s.l.), Sing Gompa (3330 m a.s.l.), Laurebina Yak (3920 m a.s.l.), Phedi (3740 m a.s.l.), Melamchi Ghyang (2530 m a.s.l.), and Thimbu (1580 m a.s.l.) - this itinerary worked all right for us and we had no problems with altitude in spite of starting right the next day after our arrival to Nepal. Many trekkers, some even on advice of their irresponsible guides, continue all the way up to Gosaikund lake at 4400 m a.s.l. while starting from Sing Gompa at 3330 m a.s.l. - I strongly advice against such hazarding (we could later heard those people complaining about headaches and sleepless night); in fact it is even impractical to sleep at Gosaikund lake as Laurebina Yak and the trail just above it offers the best views of the Himalaya ridge on this trek and should be walked early in the morning (to get the same views while staying at Gosaikund lake one has to brave a steep 1-hr early morning climb up to a viewpoint hill above the lake or set out even earlier on the 1.5-hr climb to Laurebina La). Along the last section of our route between Tarkhe Ghyang and Thimbu the original path is now replaced with newly built road (the road was fortunately not yet open but did make an ugly scar in otherwise nice forest) - it would be possible to follow this road all the way to Thimbu or Kiul but we took advantage of the original path cutting thus the way considerably by going straight down along a very steep staircase to Timbu.
1. To get to Thulo Bharkhu we took the first direct ordinary bus from Kathmandu to Syabrubesi - it left quite crowded from Machhapokhari bus terminal (in fact just a section of the road with few ticket booths and sum buses) at 7:05, cost 240NRs per person, and took about 9.5 hrs (for good views sit on the right side of the bus) - we had our tickets reserved by the Ganga Jamuna Adventure Treks a day before; yet, this bus were actually overtaken at Dhunche by the next and much less crowded bus leaving Kathmandu about one hour later !??). The bus made a stop just before Dhunche at the checking point where we bought our Langtang NP Entrance Permits (NRs1000 per person) and have them stapled to our prearranged TIMS cards.
2. To get from Thimbu to Kathmandu we took the first direct ordinary bus leaving at about 7:00 (cost NRs150 per person and took about 6 hrs; for better views sit on the left); there was no dining stop during the entire journey so better come prepared. The road was in quite terrible condition and very dusty (the fact that the bus has no windshield did not help).
1. There was no problem to find accommodation in the trekking lodges anywhere along this trek as the few organized groups on this route seemed to always camp. There are several lodges in majority of places on this trek with an exception of Phedi where there is just one reasonable lodge called the Hotel Dava Baby (there is another lodge there but in a terribly bad shape - do not bother to go down there); yet, the individual lodges along this route do differ esp. in size and atmosphere and we have generally felt better in the smallest places where we could get a somewhat warmer and family-like attention. The prices for double rooms were usually NRs100 with occasional deviations of NRs100 up or down (the menus generally quoted the price of NRs100).
2. At Thimbu we slept at the Timbu Lodge & Restaurant, the only and very basic "hotel" there (NRs100 for one of the two available double rooms, shared and quite remote bathroom with cold water only) - still, in spite of being very small the room was OK for one night. Thimbu as a whole was quite a miserable and roughly looking place.
1. The lodges on the route from Langtang to Gosaikund lake operate under a common agreement about prices of meals on the common menu while these prices are increasing with the altitude. The menus and meal prices beyond Laurebina La seem to be freely floating between villages but either fixed or very similar within individual villages. The choice was always quite wide, portions generous, and food very good.
2. At Thimbu we ate at our "hotel", the Timbu Lodge & Restaurant. Yet, it was one of the few places in Nepal where we could have cheap dal bhat (for NRs150 per portion only) and it was very good.
Annapurna Sanctuary trek
We have done a seven-day trek in the Annapurna Conservation Area again without using any guides or porters and also liked it very much. This area is much more popular and thus somewhat crowded, esp. with many large groups organized by travel agencies, but also offers still another experience of truly mountain trekking around and into the heart of the large Annapurna massif. Here the lower sections of the trek below some 2500 m asl. again pass through many Hindu Gurung villages and along their terraced fields crammed all around. To find our way we were again relying mainly on the LP Trekking-in-the-Nepal-Himalaya guide and found it quite accurate and useful; when in doubts there was no problem to ask about the way - all people we met were friendly and helpful.
Trek itinerary: Our plan was to get a close view on some of the highest mountains on the Earth - for that we choose the so-called Annapurna Sanctuary trek (also known as the Annapurna Base Camp trek or ABC trek) with a detour via Ghorepani offering spectacular views of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri massifs; ten years ago I also climbed to Ghorepani but then went down to Tatopani at the Kali Gandaki valley and trekked a part of the route of the popular trek known as the Annapurna Circuit, going up to Marpha and then back all the way to Beni (that time it was a very nice trek following narrow caravan path winding through the allegedly deepest valley of the world (the Kali Gandaki river managed to retain its southern course and cut its way right through the main ridge of the Himalayas between two "eight-thousanders", Annapurna and Dhaulagiri, whereas other great Asian rivers also originating in Tibet, such as the Sutlej, Indus, and Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra, are now circumfluencing the Himalayas before finding their ways to the Indian Ocean) but it was now effectively ruined by a very dusty new road that replaced the path all the way up to Jomson). We started our trek at Naya Pul, climbed up to Ghorepani, continued to Chhomrong and up to the Annapurna Base Camp, and then came back via Chhomrong and Landruk to Phedi; while there is just a single trail up after Chhomrong there are many ways of getting there and back - the shortest and most common way connects Naya Pul with Chhomrong via Ghandruk but I do not recommend to use it as it requires to endure torture of hiking between two ridges at Kumrong Danda (2250 m a.s.l.) and Chhomrong (2210 m a.s.l.), while descending to Khummu (1810 m a.s.l.) in between (you will have enough of such excercises when analogously but unavoidably descending to a bridge over the Chhomrong Khola river at 1860 m a.s.l. on the trail between Chhomrong (2210 m a.s.l.) and Bamboo (2310 m a.s.l.)); another way, which connects Chhomrong with Phedi via Landruk (we chose it for our descent), is slightly less torturing but somewhat longer (still, beware that the last section from Dhampus to Phedi is very steep and quite unpleasant to walk, both descending or ascending). When detouring via Ghorepani many people do it on their way back from the Sanctuary but I strongly advice against it as it requires to survive a whole day of continuous descent of about 1700 m along a very uneven stony staircase - it is much less torturing to use this staircase for climbing up, esp. when splitting the ascent into two days and spending a night in a very nice and interesting village of Ulleri. The main reason for climbing to Ghorepani is a possibility to enjoy there a fascinating morning spectacle of birth of light on the relatively near Dhaulagiri and Annapurna massifs and it is in our opinion indeed very much worth the detour - the views are nice right from the very daybreak but do not get impatient as the best part is a golden sunshine on the eastern slopes coming not before some 20 minutes after the first light. A customary way to enjoy this spectacle is to get up some two hours before daybreak and climb 450 m up to a near Poon Hill (3193 m a.s.l.), which indeed offers an unobstructed and very nice view, but beyond the pain of such morning exercise (and beware that during the climbing up the views are almost all the time blocked by a ridge) one also have to survive an unpleasant necessity of enjoying the views in a company of a noisy crowd of few hundred people; I can suggest a much more convenient way to enjoy nearly the same spectacle alone and without a necessity to get up so early - you can get about the same views on the trail going from Ghorepani eastward to Tadapani and on to the Annapurna Sanctuary; quite nice views start just after some 15 minutes of walking from Ghorepani just above a small chorten and when continuing up for some half an hour (while having quite good views practically all the time along this route except for few short trail sections passing through thicker forest) you will reach a grassy ridge where the views are completely unobstructed and very nice, esp. because you will have it very likely just for yourself; of course, if your next destination after Ghorepani is the Annapurna Sanctuary, there is no need to return back to Ghorepani and you can nicely integrate this pleasure morning spectacle into your itinerary (nevertheless, if you have some time in Ghorepani in the afternoon before this memorable morning it is very much worth it to climb on Poon Hill too as the views from there are indeed nice esp. as they allow you to catch sight of the bottom of the Kali Gandaki valley down below from an observation tower built on its top). Any problem with the altitude on this trek is quite unlikely before reaching the Himalaya Hotel at 2840 m a.s.l. but beyond it it is again necessary to be careful and take care about proper acclimatization - one way, which we also used, is not to sleep at the Annapurna Base Camp (at 4130 m a.s.l.; this place is also known by its short name as the ABC and marks the end of the trail with few lodges) but just at the Machhapuchhare Base Camp (MBC; 3700 m a.s.l.; the place with several lodges located where the trail reaches the glacier cirque known as the Annapurna Sanctuary) and visit the ABC just during daylight - the Annapurna Sanctuary is a very special place offering a rare possibility to observe at a very close range a ring of snow-capped mountains, mostly exceeding 7000 m a.s.l. and including magnificent Annapurna I towering up to 8091 m a.s.l, and several glaciers creeping down to the valley floor - it is definitely worth spending some time there and exploring around. We started our trek early morning at Naya Pul (1070 m a.s.l.), slept consecutively at Ulleri (2080 m a.s.l.; very pretty and atmospheric village with nice stone houses), Ghorepani (2750 m a.s.l.), Taglung (2190 m a.s.l.), Deorali (3140 m a.s.l.), MBC (3700 m a.s.l., got there at about 9:00 and had whole afternoon and whole next day morning to enjoy the Sanctuary while doing two day hikes to the ABC), Bamboo (2310 m a.s.l.), and Tolka (1790 m a.s.l.), and reached Phedi (1130 m a.s.l.) at about 13:00 - this itinerary worked all right for us and we had no problems with altitude.
1. To get to Naya Pul from Pokhara we took an ordinary bus leaving from the Baglung bus stand at 16:15 and arriving after dark at 18:15 (the buses leave regularly during a day till 18:00; for better views sit on the right side of the bus). The same day in the morning we took a tourist bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara and had enough time to find a hotel at Pokhara, leave our extra stuff in it, and get to the Baglung bus stand by taxi (for details see the following Pokhara section).
2. To get to from Phedi to Pokhara we took one of waiting taxis for NRs700; the ride took about half an hour right to our hotel (the taxi driver was unable to understand a map and needed to ask around for quite some time to find the relatively large Gauri Shankar Guest House, which we used as a landmark for finding our much less known chosen hotel of the Penguin Guest House). It would be, of course, much cheaper to wait some time and take one of the cheap buses passing Phedi but those would be very likely rather crowded and we wanted to have some time to see around Pokhara (it would be anyway necessary to pay for a taxi to the hotel from the bus station).
1. There was no problem to find accommodation in the trekking lodges in many villages before Chhomrong but the situation was very different beyond Chhomrong where there was just a single trail with accommodation available only in few established places. We were trekking there in high season and there were sometimes enough of the organized trekking groups to take all the available spaces - beware that even arriving early may not help as the trekking-group guides call at least a day ahead to their next destination and book the accommodation (thus, when arriving to the MBC at about 9:00 morning we find all the better lodges empty but fully booked and we were rather glad to find an available room at the less nice Gangapurna View Lodge, lying somewhat apart and being rather cold with no extra blankets available); also, on two occasions, when arriving rather late, all available double rooms were occupied (at Deorali and Bamboo) but we were offered dormitories there where we were the only guests and paid the same price as for a double room. The prices for double rooms were always NRs200.
2. At Naya Pul we slept at the Nimbu Lodge (NRs100 for a reasonable double room, bathroom attached with cold water only).
1. The lodges everywhere along this trek seem to operate under common agreements about prices of meals but with somewhat nuanced menus. Yet, the agreements always hold just for one or few adjoining villages/accommodation places and the logic of the price changes is not always clear - for no reason the prices were 50% higher in the lodges on the Ghorepani - Tadapani section of the trek, comparing to neighbouring sections; there was just one agreement agreed along the route between Naya Pul and Ghorepani where all the lodges were using the same menus and the prices were gradually rising with the altitude; along the route beyond Chhomrong up to the ABC there were separate agreements negotiated always for few adjoining accommodation places with the prices rising considerably with the altitude (the agreed prices for lodges at the MBC and ABC were already quite high and we sticked just to their very tasty soups to keep our expenses at reasonable level). Anyway, the choice was again always quite wide, portions generous, and food very good.
2. At Naya Pul we ate at our hotel of the Nimbu Lodge and found the food as good as always.
We have spent just an evening and night in Pokhara (in its Lakeside area only) and to our surprise have not found it too appealing (the haze sadly obscuring the views of the mountains have not help). The Lakeside area was a tourist ghetto, somewhat similar to Thamel in Kathmandu, with no interests beyond shopping and eating/drinking in many available restaurants. The local attraction, Phewa Tal lake, seemed to be quite dirty and we have not seen many people taking advantage of offered boating on the lake. Still, Pokhara at least offered quite pleasant, even if slightly cold weather and somewhat less polluted air in spite of heavy traffic on the main Ratnapuri Road on the lake shore.
1. To get to Pokhara from Kathmandu we took one of many tourist buses leaving around 7:00 in the morning (cost 400NRs per person, took about 7 hrs; for good views sit on the right side of the bus); our bus was rather slow - it left about one hour late after collecting some extra passengers around Kathmandu and took two rather long meal stops - and it was the last bus arriving to Pokhara, which at least spared us of fighting with famous hotel touts at the Pokhara Mustang Chowk bus station (all of them were gone already). Anyway, we were lucky to get a seat at all as we asked our dependable Ganga Jamuna Adventure Treks agency at Thamel for getting us our tickets just in the afternoon of the day before and it happened to be was just on Friday before Divali holiday - all the buses were packed full and quite a few people, trying to get a ride at the bus stand, were out of luck; in fact, the bus was not a Nepal typical modern "tourist bus" but just an ordinary Tata bus and majority of its passengers were Nepalese with just few tourists packed in the last few bus rows.
2. Taxis between the Lakeside and various bus stands in Pokhara typically cost NRs100.
Accommodation: Penguin Guest House (email@example.com, 00977-61-463399), a double room with bathroom attached (tepid water only) for NRs400 (located at the same side street as the Gauri Shankar Guest House but somewhat further away from the lake); the internet connection of the PC in the lobby did not worked and it looked to be a permanent situation. Very friendly hotel where we had no problem to store our extra luggage free of charge for an unspecified time - we arrived early afternoon, negotiated luggage storing and the room price later after our return back from trekking at an unknown future, repacked our stuff, and quickly left to catch a bus for Naya Pul; after coming back we had no problem to get the room for the pre-settled price and collect our undamaged stuff from the storage.
Food: There was absolutely no shortage of all kinds of restaurants around the Lakeside. There were also few bakeries and some supermarkets to get provision. We can also recommend the food served in the Penguin Guest House, which was quite cheap and also good.
We have spent an afternoon and night at Tansen but have not found it especially interesting. Tansen (also known as Palpa) has been quite praised by some people and guidebooks as a historical site with lots of traditional houses and temples - yet, it did not look any different from many easier accessible towns around Kathmandu valley (in fact, Tansen was indeed settled by many Newari migrants from the Kathmandu valley), such as Dhulikhel or Panauti described further on. On the other hand, Tansen is definitely an authentic Nepal town and not a tourist ghetto and so for those with no chance to explore around Kathmandu, it is a good place to see real life of Nepal - it is very hilly and by all means a typical Hindu town with all that typical colors, dirt, poverty, and pollution, so well known also from India. Another famous attraction of Tansen supposes to be a very good view of the Himalayan ridge from Shreenagar Danda hill towering right above the town (1600 m a.s.l.), but we have had no chance to enjoy it due to a thick haze covering the Himalayas ever since we left the Annapurna Sanctuary and so we have not attempted to climb this hill as originally planned. Thus, while finding one afternoon sufficient to tour all the town sights on foot, we cut short out stay at Tansen and left next morning.
1. To get a taxi early in the morning in Pokhara we had to walk to Ratnapuri Road on the lake shore and also wait there for some time.
2. To get to Tansen from Pokhara we took an ordinary bus leaving from the Pokhara's Old Bus Park at about 5:30 (we actually boarded it after it was already on its way as the taxi driver taking us to the Bus Park recognized the bus and stopped it for us) and arriving to Baglung at about 11:30 (cost 250NRs per person; for better views sit on the right side of the bus - the journey is quite scenic along a very winding road mostly following river valleys but occasionally climbing over some ridges); from there we took another bus to cover the remaining few kilometers to Tansen bus park (cost 10NRs per person, took about 20 mins). There should be also direct ordinary buses going from Pokhara all the way to Tansen - we were originally heading for such bus supposedly leaving at about 6:00.
Accommodation: Hotel The Bajra, a double room with shared bathroom (hot water shower) for NRs200. This hotel was very close to the Bus Park (quite important in this town with steep streets) but rather dirty - yet, it was still passable and sadly one of the best in town.
Food: There were not too many restaurants in Tansen. We have tried the local recommended Naglo West but found it quite overpriced (it was pretending to be a high class restaurant with waiters wearing some sort of livery but projected this desire just to the prices and not to the service) and then resorted to the very basic restaurant within the Hotel The Bajra, where we had our second cheap dal bhat. It is not so easy to buy provisions in Tansen - the best for that are few small shops around the bus park.
We have spent three days in the Chitwan National Park and found it interesting and also refreshing with its pleasantly warm weather (even if slightly hot around noon) and unpolluted air. The Chitwan NP (the formerly used adjective Royal has been dropped recently from its name) protects one of the best preserved samples of the subtropical forest originally covering all the area of the Indo-Gangetic Plains extending far to India (in Nepal these plains are called the Terai). The best accessible peripheral areas of the Park are made up of the river floodplains covered by grassland interspersed with patches of riverine forests; the more hilly central areas are covered with hardwood deciduous sal forest - the Park hosts, among others, a healthy populations of the Asian one-horned rhinoceros, tiger, and wild elephant. Unfortunately, large areas of the Park have been recently invaded by an alien plant, the perennial creeping climber called Mikania micrantha brought in from South America (we remember seeing it naturally growing in the Venezuelan llanos) - in the Chitwan NP it spreads at an alarming rate and limits growth of other vegetation, particularly the famous elephant grass (Saccharum spp), which is the basic food for rhinoceroses (ten years ago I remember passing along narrow paths lined with 4-m tall grass while at this time we have seen just depressed green carpet barely exceeding two meters).
Park visit tips: The Park entrance permit costs 500NRs per person - the ticket is dated and entitles its buyer to spent the whole given day in the Park and the next day in some of the so-called "community forests", which are the secondary forests newly grown on the reclaimed farmlands in the Buffer Zone of the Park. It is forbidden to enter the Park and some of the community forests without a guide and that substantially limits the ways of seeing it. Practically the only way how to get somewhat deeper into the Park is to buy a very expensive package stay in one of the few upmarket lodges built inside the Park where you may even have a reasonable chance of seeing a tiger. Independent travellers have to stay in villages outside the Park and hire authorized guides there to take them into the Park (actually, each visitor or group is required to hire two guides for safety reasons) - yet, it is not so easy to find good guides as there are rumours that the new republican government started to sell guiding licenses to anybody willing to pay for it and so there are now many guides around with no real knowledge of the Park flora and fauna (we have been lured to hire guiding services of the owner of our lodge who has been indeed flashing a bright new guiding license). The best place to go for independent travellers seems to be the village of Sauraha, which offers all kinds of necessary infrastructure and all available activities - the options there include hiking within the Park (it can be prolonged to several days but we were told that it was not allowed to actually sleep somewhere in the forest in your tent but it was necessary to overnight in some villages located inside or outside the Park), canoeing along the border Rapti river, and famous safari rides on the elephants - we have tried all these options and found them not bad but not too exciting either.
1. Jungle walks: The best and still economic way to explore the Park features seems to be a typical combined trip starting with early morning canoe trip down the Rapti river and followed by a hike back through the riverine forest and grassland back to Sauraha - the canoe trip can last either one or two hours but beware that it starts very early (7:30) when the river is still covered with quite thick fog and the chances to really see something are very limited (there was nearly ten boats leaving from the same place during our trip at about the same time and some guides kept rather ridiculously pointing at all kinds of songbirds and water birds around, while all of them were just vapoury silhouettes in the mist; the same problem was with also possible sightings of crocodiles or rather rare river dolphins). During the hike one gets basic idea about the vegetation of the river floodplains at the Park border area and is likely to see rhesus macaque and grey langur monkeys and possibly also some rather timid deers or even a rhinoceros (not too likely and somewhat dangerous); seeing a tiger would be an incredible luck (yet, ten years ago I nearly got a glimpse of a tiger while walking along a path trough the elephant grass quite near Sauraha - on a crossing of two such paths I met a guy with rather goggly eyes and his two guides, who were coming from a path perpendicular to the path I was walking, and excitedly reported that they just saw a sambar deer jumping across the path and closely followed by a tiger; well, some people are indeed lucky). You can do this trip in half a day or all day depending on your pace and the time spent hiking in the forest. We found it quite difficult to pick out good guides - there was no lack of offers at Sauraha but we could not make out an effective way how to rightly assess quality of the options; in the end we took a slightly more expensive offer of the guides hanging around the Park HQs (but not directly connected to the Park) but was not especially impressed with the outcome (the main guide name was Deepak and he was showing a lot of looking for rhinoceroses and other game but we could not help feeling that it was more for an effect than for real) - we paid NRs2900 per person (incl. the Park entrance fee) for a one-hour canoe trip and eight-hour hike back through rather monotonous riverine forest interlaced with patches of pitifully depressed elephant grass; the hike was not especially exciting but did give us some idea of the Indian nature and we at least saw quite well troops of both local monkey species. Ten years ago I was trying to get deeper into the Park as far as the sal forest and so I hired some guides to take me to a near hill clearly visible from Sauraha but I soon caught the guides leading me in circles and was unable to make them to deliver what they promised - yet, the forest looked very different then with no creeping plants and much more light.
2. Elephant rides: Another interesting way of seeing some wildlife around Sauraha is to take the famous elephant safari ride into the forest - practically the only chance now is to use the so-called privately owned elephants that go to the Kumrose Community Forest up to four times every day (the few remaining so-called government elephants, i.e. belonging to the Park, are now solely used by Park rangers for patrolling the Park). This elephant safari is no private adventure though, as it consists in about 15 to 20 elephants going more or less together along the same short circuit, but does give a chance to observe wildlife from different perspective and at close range as the wildlife reacts to safari elephants just like to safari jeeps, i.e. ignores the humans sitting on their backs. However, the Kumrose Community Forest is no pristine national park but a rather small fenced game preserve with very recently re-grown secondary forest and very tamed animals, so expect something like a special zoo and not a genuine nature - on the other hand you are almost guaranteed to see a rhinoceros at a close range, several different kinds of deer (esp. spotted deer), and likely also a crocodile (yet, it was rather disturbing to see the poor rhinoceros encountered during our ride who was occasionally trying to escape from the open grassfield to the bushes but was always mercilessly forced out to the open by one of the safari elephants). Some local hustlers even organize so-called "jungle walks" in this "Forest" and also offer a chance to pass the night at one of the few "hides within the forest" built within reach from Sauraha but all these are of course nothing more than shameless tourist traps. Anyway, riding the elephant is experience by itself and we do consider it worth experiencing. We paid 800NRs per person (while re-using our Park entrance permit valid for the previous day) for our ride and organized it through our hotel. We took our ride in the evening - the ride started at about 15:30 and lasted till about 17:00 (we got picked up by a jeep at our hotel at about 14:00 and driven to a near place with few wooden constructions allowing easy mounting of the elephants); yet, it was rather dark during the ride (due to the general haze in Nepal during our trip) and so we did not get a good view of the deers lingering inside the thick forest bushes - normally, morning and evening are recommended for game drives but it may be better now in Nepal to go for one of the middle day rides. Anyway, ten years ago the situation was very different - I was trying to save some money then and took a community-forest ride but found it not too good (the forest was even younger and smaller then and it was not much more to be seen than a few rhinoceroses grazing at the open grassfield) and so I took an evening ride with a "government" elephant (that time there was about ten of them going out every day) into the Park itself and it was much much better and rather unforgettable experience for me - the Park vegetation then was yet undestroyed and we rode through the elephant grass and dense forest and still got a chance to see few rhinoceroses and several kinds of deer; it was all very romantic and real then and I could not find any trace of that authentic experience in this new visit. It has to be concluded that at least near Sauraha the Chitwan NP seems to be on a very clear decline concerning both its nature and the services provided to nature loving visitors; also beware that the information about elephant rides, as provided both in the LP Nepal guide and also on many available internet sites, is very obsolete and rather misleading.
3. Other options: Besides these official and rather expensive attractions there are also some other, much cheaper options available. In Sauraha it is possible to hire a bicycle and use it for visiting the place called Bees Hajari Tal (meaning "20,000 lakes" in English) in near Tikauli Community Forest - it is about 15 km from Sauraha along the sealed road and features a collection of lakes, channels, marshes, and some riverine forest (the entrance fee to this Forest is 60NRs per person; a bicycle rental at few Sauraha rentals is about 100NRs per piece for half a day - the available bicycles are of the Chinese origin and not in a good shape but sufficient for the flat terrain around there); unfortunately, we have been surprised by a very strange absence of almost any birds on water bodies in this area during our visit (ten years ago I had a good time observing multitude of water birds all around the place); still, the road crossing the Forest is commonly used by local villagers to commute to their homes and the wildlife there is thus quite used to seeing humans and their escape distances are quite short - therefore you have at least a good chance to observe animals at close range there (we got our best sightings of macaque monkeys and spotted deer there). Right at Sauraha you may also observe elephant bathing in the Rapti river (free of charge, every day between 11:30 and 12:00 in front of the Chitwan Bar & Restaurant slightly down the river from the park HQs; nice observing of some elephants enjoying themselves being splashed and rubbed by their mahouts, their drivers and tenders, in the river), freely visit a small patch of riverine forest in the river bend next the Park HQs, where you can observe some songbirds, or visit the near elephant stables (half a kilometer along a path going northeast of the Park HQs), where you can safely get close to few resting elephants tied there up to the piles (also, one day we got near there a great chance to observe there a pair of rhinoceroses, an oldish male and his adolescent pal, soaking themselves in the river just behind these stables both in the morning and in the evening - maybe it was rather hot that night and they were probably cooling themselves there, as the next day they have been gone).
1. To get to Sauraha from Tansen we decided to give ourselves a break from the crowded buses and booked two seats in a small minivan going directly from Tansen to Kathmandu via Narayangarh/Bharatpur - the company name was "Air Micro" and its service was advertised as "luxurious" and "full air conditioned" but sure as hell there was no extra luxuries really provided beyond the higher price, i.e. there was no AC and the minivan was stopping anywhere along the way and both its driver and baggage handler went for a hunt for extra passengers to fill the vacant seats and even the seats that have not been there at all (we ill-advisedly booked the seats in the first row behind the driver and spent the ride fighting for space with the baggage handler and up to two extra passengers, all trying to squeeze into the only remaining seat in that row - my recommendation for such vehicle would be now to go for the last third or at least the second row); the ticket from Tansen to Narayangarh cost NRs500 per person, the vehicle left at 7:00 and took 4 hrs to get there. The usual and of course much cheaper way to cover this route would be to take an ordinary bus to local hub town of Butwal and switch there to another ordinary bus going to Narayangarh (yet, this way would be obviously much more time consuming, which was precisely the reason why we went for the minivan service ensuring sooner arrival to Sauraha giving us enough time to find a hotel and organize Park visits). To cover the remaining distance from Narayangarh to Sauraha we first took an ordinary bus to Tandi Bazaar/Sauraha Chowk (the village on the main road with a turn-off for Sauraha) for NRs50 per person, and then a taxi to our hotel at Sauraha for NRs300.
2. To get to Kathmandu from Sauraha we took one of several tourist buses leaving around 9:30 (cost 350NRs per person, took about 6 hrs; for good views sit on the left side of the bus) - we booked and bought our tickets through our Sauraha hotel, the Annapurna View Lodge, which also provided a jeep to transfer us to the 2-km distant bus park for NRs50 per person (shared with three other guests). At Kathmandu the tourist bus terminated on an ordinary street somewhere in the north of the city quite far away from the center.
Accommodation: Annapurna View Lodge, a double room with bathroom attached (cold water shower), fan, and reasonable mosquito netting for NRs200; good value lodge with a rather nice rooms in a quiet location but the owners was not especially friendly and tried to considerably inflate our summary bill paid when leaving (they were especially creative while operating with the 10% service fee, which should be of course added just to the meals price but they tried to add it to all kinds of other services including the tourist bus tickets, so watch out) - yet, the room rate was very reasonable considering the local situation (I did manage to negotiate some discount as the competition was fierce at Sauraha) and the owners seemed to be able to arrange all kind of activities (we bought our elephant ride and tickets for the Kathmandu tourist bus through them and there was no problem with these services).
Food: There is no shortage of restaurants in Sauraha and the prices are quite reasonable there; beware that the 10% service fee is added to the bill at all the restaurants there (as it is usually mentioned by a small print somewhere on the menu).
1. We happened to find a very good restaurant at Sauraha at the first attempt and stopped looking for any other after our first meal there - it was the Toro Toro Restaurant not far from the Sauraha central T-Junction in the direction to Tandi Bazaar; the food was quite cheap there, the menu choice rather wide, portions generous, and the food was quite delicious (with the exception of momo, which was clearly not their own food and was put on the menu just to meet the likely tourist demands).
2. After our arrival we tried our first meal at our hotel, the Annapurna View Lodge, but found the portions little small, the food rather dull, and the prices somewhat high. After that we were just ordering a morning pot of tea at 6:30 there but had some problems to really get it so early and had to remind this order to them every morning. Naturally, they was not too happy that we had not been eating there (it was a general anticipation in Nepal that the room rate was rather cheap but you ate at your hotel) but we saw no reason why eating so poorly prepared meals in a place with such a good choice (at least we tried to buy through this hotel all the generally available services) - yet, this approach of ours might have been the reason while we had the problem with our bill mentioned above.
3. It was not always easy to buy provisions at Sauraha - there were enough possibilities to buy water or soda drinks and also some fruits but the only bakery there was constantly out of stock.
Namo Buddha gompa
We have spent about a day (incl. the night) at the Namo Buddha gompa (Tibetan monastery) and it was very interesting experience for us indeed. Namo Buddha is a place very sacred especially to Buddhists as according to the legends it was there where an Indian prince, one of the previous incarnations of future Buddha, gave his body to save lives of a hungry tigress and her newly born cubs. This legendary act has been always commemorated by the Tagmo Lijin Stupa built there (the first stupa was allegedly built by the prince parents right after his self-sacrifice) that remains an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists and also Hindus. Since 1978 a new gompa called the Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery has been being built at the same site as a Kagyu tradition retreat center and a "shedra", a college for higher Buddhist studies; the gompa is now nearly completed and includes also a school for young monks, translation and publication house, and medical clinic - it is also offering various retreats to westerners as an initiation to their personal exploration of Buddhism.
Monastery stay tips: The Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery at Namo Buddha (www.namo-buddha.org/nb.html) operates two guest houses on the premises and when staying there one can get three daily meals together with the monks and also attend their morning and evening prayers (6:00-7:00 and 18:00-19:30, if still remember it correctly) and freely wander all around the gompa. Even for not really spiritually involved visitors it is quite interesting to follow the life of the Buddhist monks and soak in the serene atmosphere of the Tibetan gompa. Besides, the gompa is also located on top of a rather prominent hill and should offer from its terraces a spectacular view of the entire Himalayan range all the way from Manaslu to Mt. Everest (unfortunately, it was not the case during our visit). We happened to arrive to gompa on a full-moon Sunday and the day of another of many Hindu holidays and got quite a shock, as this occasion turned the gompa into a feast ground of Hindu pilgrims - the monks used to keep their gompa in a spotlessly tidy status were getting a practical exercise in impermanence as their visitors were showing the typical Hindu indolence to tidiness and were effectively turning the gompa into a dumping ground; the monks started cleaning operation next morning but it was clearly a full-week task to get the gompa back in order. Anyway, we very much welcomed a chance to experience the peaceful life of the Tibetan gompa and quite enjoyed our stay there - we can recommend an overnight stay there to just anybody, but particularly to those interested in Buddhism; besides a few short-time guests as ourselves, we have also seen several western people who were apparently taking some sort of lessons in the gompa, so those interested can also explore along that possibility.
Dhulikhel to Panauti hike: Besides the visit of the gompa we have been also interested in doing a short trek in the hill country east of Kathmandu (in fact, our original plan was to do a rather popular trek from Nagarkot to Panauti via Dhulikhel, but when finding about a possibility to stay at the Namo Buddha gompa we shortened the hike to get more time there). So, we took off from Kathmandu early in the morning for Dhulikhel (1440 m a.s.l.) and hiked about 9 km to Namo Buddha (1750 m a.s.l.); next afternoon we hiked another 9 km to Panauti (1400 m a.s.l.) and took an afternoon bus back to Kathmandu. The usual goal for taking a trek in this area is to enjoy the views of the entire Himalayan range available on any hill facing north there (esp. at Nagarkot that, with its altitude of 2175 m a.s.l., should offer an uninterrupted view of the peaks all the way from Annapurna to Mt. Everest) but there is no guarantee of this pleasure nowadays - due to the general haze in Nepal during our trip we have not seen much more than a fumy outline of the closest peaks. Nevertheless, the trek we took was still interesting as it gave us a chance to have a close look at the Nepal countryside and few villages along the trail; yet, do not expect to enjoy the nature along this trek as there is almost no forest left and the few remaining patches are in a rather miserable condition being clearly overexploated by the villagers. The best part of the trek was probably the first section from Dhulikhel to crossing with the Sindhuli highway (you can also arrive there by a bus from Kathmandu) which passed through some nice villages, farmland, and even some woods left standing - the rest of the trek followed a dusty road all the way to the gompa (it might have been not so bad if we could actually exploit the views of the Himalayan range, which were not blocked out there by any hills, and especially if the road was not jammed by pilgrim's vehicles heading for the gompa); the trek from the gompa to Panauti followsd a very dusty road trough a forest remnants at the beginning but mostly through farmland and few not especially interesting villages - we were rather surprised by an awful amount of rubbish lining the road all the way to Panauti (the problem was probably made worse by this being a pilgrimage way but the rubbish was not all fresh to be just a leftover from the last feast). Dhulikhel and especially Panauti were quite nice places preserving some atmosphere of ancient Newari towns and featuring some beautiful old buildings and interesting temples while not yet not spoilt by tourist hordes and ticket booths - both would make quite a good destination by itself as they still offer the genius loci long gone in more famous places nearer to Kathmandu.
1. To get to Dhulikhel from Kathmandu we took an ordinary bus leaving from the Kathmandu Old Bus Park (Ratna Park) bus station (there were many buses leaving since about 6:00, cost 40NRs per person, took about 2 hrs). Direct buses going all the way to Namo Buddha were also available (those should be passing by Dhulikhel too before continuing to Namo Buddha).
2. To get from Panauti to Kathmandu we took an ordinary bus (cost 50NRs per person, took about 2 hrs).
Accommodation: We slept at the old guest house operated by the Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery at Namo Buddha. We got a basic double room (one of about six available) with access to a shared bathroom (cold water only) for 300NRs per person (this price also included three daily meals with the monks).
Food: We ate all three daily meals together with the monks in the Monastery dining hall (price of the meals were included in our room rate). The consecutive meals were served at 7:00, 12:00, and 17:00 and were all prepared in the Monastery kitchen - the food was quite good and filling and consisted of some curry with rice and various vegetables (there was of course no meat in it, but it was also nothing like the tsampa and po cha (Tibetan tea) diet known from the descriptions of life in some orthodox Tibetan monasteries). The cutlery was provided.
We have spent altogether about six days in Kathmandu (including two short stops when just passing through it) and found the city and its vicinity very interesting but cursed with terrible pollution of air, esp. by an airborne dust. Whole Kathmandu valley used to be a site of quite a few independent and competing city kingdoms and one can thus found remnants of once nice temples spread all around the valley and in every single town (yet, their status now is usually not too good as there is clearly little money to put into any repairs); the best known are Kathmandu itself and its neighbouring and now practically interconnected cities of Patan and Bhaktapur but smaller towns may be also worth visiting (such as Dhulikhel and Panauti mentioned in previous section). The main attractions are quite well described in the LP Nepal guide.
Kathmandu sights: Kathmandu has no larger preserved old quarters but all around the city you can find spread all kinds of temples and other historical buildings - the walking tours outlined in the LP Nepal guide get you to a good sample of them. The main city attractions include the Durbar Square ("Palace Courtyard" in English, i.e. the site of the old royal palace and a conglomerate of picturesquely inhomogeneous temples around it), Pashupatinath (the site of cremation ghats and the main Nepal Hindu temple, which is not accessible to non-Hindus but can be somewhat overviewed from neighbouring hill), and Swayambhunath (a hill crowned with a Buddhist stupa and another conglomerate of temples) - all these sites are quite crowded with tourists all day long; the authorities also collect a rather high entrance fee of few hundred Rupees in each of these places (another new addition nonexistent ten years ago) but it is still generally always possible to slip in through some of the side entrances (many of them around Durbar Square, a side staircase going down to river from north side of the temple at Pashupatinath, and a side staircase going in parallel north of the main staircase from the east at Swayambhunath). A rather special attraction is Bodhnath, a very large Buddhist stupa and one of the main centers of Tibetan refugees settled in Nepal - it is very nice and contrasting by its ingenuous beauty and tidiness with general filthiness of Hindu quarters; the stupa is encircled by a ring of Tibetan shops and also some Tibetan gompas and offers an island of serenity in the mess of surrounding world and a chance to observe Tibetan pilgrims turning the prayer wheels and circumambulating around the stupa while murmuring their mantras; even here there are some entrance fee collecting booths at the main entrances but these can be once again avoided by slipping in through some small side inlets (one is just next the main entrance to the east).
Patan sights: Patan is rather similar to Kathmandu and also offers a variety of all kinds of temples and other historical buildings which can be again well sampled when taking the walking tour outlined in the LP Nepal guide; the main city attraction is again its Durbar Square with an assortment of various temples. Once again, a rather high entrance fee is charged and the authorities in Patan are especially pushy in their effort to collect it - we encountered the first collecting booth right at the LP walking tour start about a kilometer from the Patan Durbar Square and there were even some young girls actively pursuing westerners there and trying to direct them to the booth; we refused to pay there and sidetracked the court with the booth and walked all the rest of the walking tour to the Durbar Square - there we passed another closed collecting booth but when exploring the temples on the Square we were again approached by another girl asking about the fee; that was enough for us and we left the places indicated in the LP Nepal guide and thus finally got rid of the pestering (what a pity - ten years ago Patan was an especially pleasant place less crowded with tourists and certainly with no collectors).
Bhaktapur and other Kathmandu valley sights: We had enough of requests for money and spent the rest of our time exploring around Katmandu side streets and markets and shopping for sportswear in Kathmandu tourist ghetto of Thamel. Yet, ten years ago I also visited the third city of Bhaktapur (rather similar to Patan but somewhat more spacious - yet, the fee requested there now is especially steep according to the information given on the internet), and also more remote temples of Changu Narayan (smallish but pretty with a nice sample of the famous tantric copulating couples - or bigger groups - carved underneath the temple roof) and Dakshinkali (temple of fearsome goddes Khali known for the animal sacrifices practised there twice a week).
1. The Kathmandu airport is just about 6 km from the city center. As far as I know the only way to cross this distance is to take a taxi - the price can be some 250-350NRs, depending on your luck, time of day, and bargaining skills. The taxis do not have or do not use the meter, so you need to settle the price before entering the taxi.
2. The taxis are not especially cheap anywhere in Kathmandu but if you try to get a taxi at Thamel there is no chance at all to get a reasonable offer - better walk outside this tourist ghetto.
3. We have visited all the sights described above in the Kathmandu and Patan paragraphs simply on foot as it was also a good way to observe the normal life of Nepali people; the only exception was our return from Bodhnath when we took a bus to the Kathmandu Old Bus Park for 25NRs per person.
4. During my previous visit ten years ago I rented a rather good mountain bicycle at Thamel for few days and used it to explore around Kathmandu. Unfortunately, while it was quite nice then, nowadays it would be a rather suicidal enterprise in the current Nepal traffic and environment.
1. During our short stays in Kathmandu before and after our Lantang/Helambu trek we stayed at the Hotel Down Town in Thamel (hoteldowntownnepal.com) - the first time we paid 385NRs for a smallish double room with shared bathroom (hot water), the second time - after a week of trekking - we decided to go for a little luxury and took a large double room with bathroom attached (hot water) for 700NRs; the hotel was quite friendly and we had no problem to store our extra luggage there in the storage free of charge for an unspecified time and collect it undamaged after our return. Thamel is a tourist center of Kathmandu and it constitutes a real tourist ghetto where there are no normal shops (solely tourist oriented shops instead) and all the people one met there are either tourists or the locals attending to them - the place had a terribly artificial atmosphere and it was clearly no place to stay for any longer time. Still, it was a good place for organizing logistics and shopping related to the trekking.
2. For our longer stay before leaving for home we stayed at the Green House Lodge (firstname.lastname@example.org) at another Kathmandu tourist center built along the Jochne Street (formerly known as the Freak Street) near the Kathmandu Durbar Square - we paid 350NRs for a double room with bathroom attached (hot water) and TV; when leaving for our overnight stay at the Namo Buddha gompa (see the previous section) we kept our room for the price of 50NRs). We can definitely recommend this reasonable hotel and the whole area for any longer stays in Kathmandu as it is no tourist ghetto but a normal street with the Nepalese living their normal lives (running around on their motorcycles) but still offering all the needed services - it is actually also better located regarding the Kathmandu tourist attractions, esp. the adjacent Durbar Square, and also regarding its proximity to the Old Bus Park used by buses servicing the locations all around the Kathmandu valley.
Food: There is generally no shortage of good restaurants either in Thamel or along the Jochne Street.
1. In Thamel we liked the Yangling Tibetan restaurant on the crossing of JP School and Saatghumti Chowk, which served very cheap and delicious Tibetan food, esp. momo and vegetable soups. Reasonably priced and good restaurant was also the Yak Restaurant on the street connecting Thamel Chowk and Thahiti Tole. There was also a restaurant in the Hotel Down Town but little expensive and not that good.
2. There were several good restaurants on the Jochne Street (Freak Street) but we generally preferred the Kumari Restaurant near our hotel, the Green House Lodge; yet, better stay away from the Ganesh Restaurant with its rather overpriced food and somewhat incompetent staff.
3. There was no problem to buy provisions anywhere in Kathmandu. You can even find several well-stocked supermarkets at Thamel and one is also just about 100 m continuing on south beyond the Jochne Street.
When preparing for my trips I usually gather from the internet all information available and before I go I put it unsorted into separated documents covering each place to be visited and print those out to use them during the trip. Unfortunately, I did not have enough time to prepare the documents for all the places this time but at least managed to do that for those not really well described in the LP guidebooks. I still have the documents prepared for this trip and I can send them to you on request. If anybody is interested please see the information on my Introductory Page.