Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Travel Traps and Drugs

I just heard a podcast on Democracy Now about a young, American woman's plight with police in East Timor and it reminded me of how so many come to Nepal, totally trusting that things will go well. They roll with most of what they travel into, but there are many, many traps that young people can fall into.
This is a familiar scene from the river near many temples.

A few years ago I hosted a traveler from the US who brought a few things for me from America. Although I was aware of the marijuana issues in Nepal, I had no idea about hard drugs here. Marijuana has been part of the Nepali culture for many generations and each year on Lord Shiva's birthday, generally celebrated in March, smoking marijuana is legal. However, the police are on the lookout a few days prior and Nepali who are caught with it can fall into problems. Tourists, too, can get caught up in it, so it's best to be very careful here about it. But it's plentiful and the majority of the young men are said to partake of 'ganja.' 

The reason for marijuana being illegal is most likely primarily due to the US foreign aid requirements. Additionally, marijuana use is associated with being lazy. You will see men dressed in yellow and orange going around collecting from businesses and passersby. These are sadus, a tradition that has come from India. They love to have their picture taken by tourists, but you will be asked to pay afterwards. Be sure to obtain the price of the donation prior to the picture. These men can often be found at Shiva temples; people bring them donations of ganja.

Pashupathinath on Shiva Ratri, very crowded on this day.

 All that being said, be careful not to fall into the 'hard drug' trap. From what I learned during my guest's stay about heroin was that it can be a real problem. First of all, heroin is available in Nepal for an unbelievably low price of less that $10 a pop. But falling into the drug scene in a country on the other side of the planet is a foolish thing to do. The local drug dealer will become your new best friend and will be there for you throughout the time needed to go through all your money. Western passports sell for a lot of money on the black market, so what do you think your new friends will be doing while you are flying high or passed out?

When this guy came to Nepal I offered my driver for him for the day and they both went to Kathmandu. Soon I got a phone call that our tourist had disappeared. Apparently he had been in contact with someone online, other than me, because that night he had exploding poo. Soon, I was getting reports of him 'walking with someone who had just gotten out of jail.' He became an embarrassment until I could get him out of my apartment, which cost about $50 to have it happen without incident. As far as I know, he made it back home without formal problems.

Without your passport and money you can end up getting deported back to your country. When you are asked to leave Nepal you will not be given a free flight home. No, you will be housed in a special room while you call everyone you know back home to get the money for a flight home. You will not be allowed to fly to Delhi or anywhere else-just wherever your passport says you are from. You will not be allowed to come back to Nepal for at least two years and your passport will be stamped 'deported.' If you go traveling again you will be much more likely to be harassed in every country you enter until you get a new passport.

In the meantime, you will be living in a fairly small room with about 20-30 other tourists of your gender and paying for your own food. Hard drug use can also land you in jail and then court, as well, but I have not known anyone who had to go there. The government is still very weak from the recent civil war, so you would possibly be able to work with the local police via negotiations.

Tourist Police Station is in Kathmandu's Darbur Square (Hanuman Dokha)

Imagine the nightmare from such thing. Regardless as to your propensity for hard drug use, I suggest putting your embassy's consulate's number in your phone and get his/her involvement as early on as possible if problems arise. One tourist friend got into trouble for another reason and his consulate allowed him to stay with me while he worked on getting his ticket home. This is where coming from Europe or America will really come in handy.  My troubled, tourist friend told me about people in that room from Africa and Asia who were treated a bit differently. I do not mean to say that the police are anything but respectful in Nepal. I have never heard of a tourist from anywhere getting beat-up by the police or anything like that. Although you might run into a 'bad apple' I have never heard or seen the police be anything but respectful, helpful and polite to tourists. My advice would be to obey the laws and be as respectful as possible to any police officer. They work very hard and are holding the country together quite well, considering.

You should also put the tourist police phone number into your phone upon arrival. There will be someone there who speaks English and possibly your own language. Tourist Police: 01 4247041

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Guest Blog: A Deadly Trek in Nepal

My name is Evan and I've volunteered to add a post here about trekking in Nepal.  I can't be considered an expert since I've only done two treks here but this October I was involved in the worst (deadliest) trekking disaster in Nepal in 45 years.

My wife, Lisa, and I spent 10 days trekking the Annapurna circuit from Besi Sahar to the High Camp just below the 5400 meter Thurong La pass.  The evening before we planned to cross, it began to snow. Unbeknownst to us, there was the terrible storm, Hudhud, that had recently ravaged part of the Indian coastline and we were experiencing a bit of it as it moved inland and north.  Without any phones or internet for over a week, we didn't know that what began as a light snowfall would turn into a devastating blizzard with deadly consequences.

The next morning there was half a meter of snow on the ground outside our room.  Although the thought crossed my mind that perhaps the snow would prevent some of the groups from crossing the pass for a day, we didn't see any of the guides hesitate.  Despite the snow and the darkness, the hundreds of trekkers and their guides and porters began leaving the High Camp (4800m) at 4:30 am.   We didn't leave until a little after dawn, about 6:20am.  Although we were way behind, we were well acclimatized to the high altitude and felt very strong.  We soon began passing long lines of slow moving trekkers as they trudged up the narrow path stamped out in the increasingly deep snow.

We reached the pass in about the estimated amount of time- around 9am.  About 20 minutes below the pass the wind began to kick up to tremendous speeds.  Tiny bits of ice whipped sideways by the wind stung your face if you lifted your head or turned to look at the person you were passing.  I watched as Lisa's bright orange pack cover was ripped from her bag and went flying away into the foggy morning. We didn't have time to worry about it. It disappeared within seconds.

At the pass, as we tried to snap a couple of pictures, all the warmth our bodies were generating climbing the steep hill was lost.  I helped Lisa take off her outside jacket, put on her down jacket, and zip her shell layer over it, all while shivering uncontrollably as the winds continued to blow snow and ice into our faces and up our clothes. I was too cold to take off my jacket to add my down jacket layer and I yelled over the raucous wind that we had to get off the mountain.

As we began to descend the other side of the pass, however, I abruptly stopped us. We were walking downhill into a white wall. It was difficult to tell where the snow on the ground ended and the snowy fog began.  Deadly scenes of books I'd read about mountain climbing as a teenager played out in my mind's eye. I remembered what I'd learned from those books, and from many trips into the Cascade Mountains west of Seattle, Washington with my climbing-enthuisast father: Descending is usually more dangerous than an ascent of a mountain.  By the time you are heading down, you're already tired from the climb up.
Having achieved your goal, you are often comforted by a false sense of security and are more prone to ignore warning signs of changing weather and fatigue or exposure.  Its easier to slip stepping down than up, and the inertia of a slip downhill can send you careening down a steep slope.  Plus, we couldn't even see the trail.  Whatever vague path that had been cleared by previous groups had been covered by the drifting snow, and it would have been extremely easy to start our descent on the wrong angle or slope and we'd have little hope of every finding the right path again.  I allowed myself to consider the potentially disastrous consequences only briefly before I told Lisa we had to go back and wait for another of the many groups of trekkers behind us to lead the way down the mountain.   While we waited again at the top of the pass, Lisa helped me put on my down jacket below my waterproof shell.  My numbed hands, covered by two layers of extra socks, could barely grip the zippers, but I immediately felt the warmth of the extra thick layer of down.  Soon a guided group started down the trail and we followed them down, beginning a descent that would take us 7 hours, almost twice as long as the normal estimate on an average day.

Lisa and I stayed together for nearly the entire walk down, sometimes through waist high drifts of snow. We kept our hands in pockets to protect them from the wind and snow and kept squeezing them to keep blood circulating. We stopped only twice, for about a minute apiece, to drink a little of the water half frozen in our water bottles.  Warm under all of our layers of fleece, down and Goretex,  we concentrated on our steps, careful to not slide off of the narrow path and down the seemingly endless slope below us.

An hour below the pass there was an Asian lady stuck in the snow. She was crossing an area where the snow was thigh high and she wouldn't move; she just sat half buried in the snow wailing mutely over the wind. A line of 5 or 6 trekkers formed behind her and eventually someone broke a trail around her and the line began to move again.  When I reached her, a Spanish lady implored me to help.  A German trekker and I each grabbed and arm and hauled the despairing woman out of the snow and began to half aid, half drag her down the hill.  I kept yelling at her over the roar of the wind that she had to keep moving, she couldn't stop. Keep going! Step! Step! Go!  100 meters down the slope, her husband was waiting for her and took her into his arms as he thanked us. I told him to keep her moving. I wanted to help more, but I didn't know what I could do for her.  No one on that mountain had time to stop and rest and I felt responsible mostly just for my wife and my own self.  I can't imagine having liability for an entire trekking group of people with varying ability.  I'm not even sure what I would have done if my wife had begun to despair herself.  Survival depended on us staying physically and mentally strong and continuing to descend until we reached shelter- in our case until we reached the town of Muktinath, 1700 m below the pass.

Except for another incident- when a young Israeli trekker cut in between Lisa and I and then slowed down the line behind her, separating Lisa and I for 20 minutes until I awkwardly pushed past her and basically tumbled down the mountain shouting for Lisa to wait for me- Lisa and I stayed together, kept moving, and safely finished our descent a little before sunset.  In all we had walked nearly nonstop for almost 10 hours.  It was a long, epic day for us, but I probably wouldn't include it as one of my three hardest days in the mountains.  Our packs were light, and our minds were strong.  We never felt we were in too much danger- or maybe we just banished the perfectly rational thought from our minds. Worry and fatigue could have led to despair. And despair is dangerous.

In a hotel in Muktinath we found our two friends who had gotten separated from us early in the hike.  The French friend had been swept 10 meters off of the trail in a small avalanche on his descent. Although he wasn't hurt (nor were, he thinks, the other 14 people who joined him in his tumble) he was profoundly disturbed by the experience evidenced by the fact that within 36 hours he was on a plane back to France!

We didn't realize the magnitude of the impending disaster until the next morning when a group of Israeli trekkers were looking for their friends and had tallied that the number of Israeli trekkers alone who never made it to Muktinath the previous day was in the double digits.  The weather had cleared, the sun shone and the sight and sound of rescue helicopters filled the morning.  At first they brought down live trekkers found stranded but alive on the trail or who had spent the night at the teahouse at the very top of the pass. Then they started to bring down the bodies.

In all, I believe over 40 people died in night.  I assume most of them succumbed to exposure, being stranded in the blizzard overnight, exhausted and without the physical or psychological means to continue.  One man's body was found in a sleeping bag on the trail.  Many of the fallen were Nepali porters who often don't have the experience of the guides nor the equipment and clothing of the trekkers. How much harder would our day have been with at 30kg pack on our backs, wearing Chuck Taylor sneakers and without our myriad layers of down and waterproof jackets.

For the next couple of days, the beauty of the valley around Muktinath was overshadowed by the sobering scenes of groups of friends wandering aimlessly around town awaiting the arrival of news, or the remains, of their still missing friends.

Although we've discussed the day dozens of times now, I still don't know exactly why we survived and others did not.  Maybe my experience and Lisa's strength and confidence kept us safe.  Maybe it was our warm clothes and the time we took to acclimatize.  Maybe it was because we only had to look out for each other and we kept each other sane and safe. Probably all three with a healthy dose of luck as well. I know that the next time I trek in Nepal, and there will assuredly be a next time, I will again rent a seemingly unnecessarily thick down jacket.  I'll also insist on another ridiculously heavy and warm (-20 degree) down sleeping bag- which I believe would have kept us alive in the night if it came to that. A lot of trekkers have porters who carry their sleeping bags and so were caught in the blizzard without them.  If I employ a trekker I will make sure his load isn't more than recommended (I think less than 30 kgs is normal in Nepal) and that he has good boots and warm jackets himself.  I'll do my best to get up to date info on the weather and be open to delaying our trip instead of pushing on in bad weather.  I would again read up carefully on the trek and arm myself with the important knowledge of the route description and estimated time and distance so I could make educated decisions in a pinch.

We feel really fortunate to have come through the experience without incident but we'd also advise other trekkers to take the same precautions we listed above- and more!  There are many great websites and books dedicated to trekking in Nepal, all of them written by people with much more experience than I have.  Consult them and know what you are getting yourself into before you set out.  Hire a reputable company. Insist that the porters you employ are well outfitted. Or if you are like me and prefer the independent trek, make sure you are ready for the most extreme weather you can think of, both physically and mentally. And enjoy, because trekking in the Himalaya is a highlight of anyone's life of travel!


I'd like to say 'thank you' to Evan and Lisa for this amazing blog post and also to my friend, Kamal Shakya for the great pictures. 

Share the post if you like it, follow us on google+ if you enjoy our posts, check out our guest house at if you wish to travel in Nepal.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Doing Nepal a bit differently

Instead of staying in Thamel and taking a taxi where they want to go, there is a better way. This info is taken from information in my book, Nepal: A Tourist's Manual, eBook.

First, take a quadrant of the Kathmandu Valley to explore. Changunarayan/Bhaktapur, Kopan, Pharfing, Kirtipur. So book your room online for the first night or two. This usually gets you a free, or reduced, ride from the airport.
Changunarayan is nearby Bhaktapur, an ancient village that will give you more of a 'genuine' feel. Using this example, book your room at Star View Guest House & Retreat Center or another guest house in Changu. There are several things to do, from painting your own thangka to exploring the nearby villages that each have a unique flavor. There are also 2 museums to explore. It's really quiet, too.

Big tip: Try to book your time in Nepal so you will be here during a full moon. There is usually a festival going on during each full moon, but you may need to do a bit of research on where is the best place. Indra Jatra is coming in September, awesome! That will be an excellent time to stay a couple nights in Thamel, Chhetrapati or near Darbur Square, Kathmandu.

Tourist Section at the festival

Now, from Changu, after you finish your warm-up hike to Nagarkot to see the sunrise over Everest, seen the Kali Baba who lives at his temple ground on one of the nearby hills, explored Bhaktapur, etc. then move over to Pharfing/Kirtipur areas. But first you will probably go to Pokhara or Chitwan, but when you come back you don't need to stay where you were staying before. Guest houses in Nepal will store your luggage while you are out exploring, so you might want to stay one more night at that guest house before moving on.

These are all permit-free trekking trails and can go from gentle walks to a bit of climbing, but it's through villages that do not get so many tourists. After you see this side of the Valley you will want to go to the other side for a bit. You will see different birds, insects, cultures and terrain. 

Check out our website for more information regarding Nepal, as well as information on purchasing the eBook.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Our Lovely Guest House & Retreat Center

Changunarayan Temple at sunset, from a distance
Most of my readers are aware of our retreat center project, but the details haven't been properly clarified. I hope this blog post serves as a bit of a 'walk-through.' Few are daring enough to come without seeing what they are getting themselves into.

First, the village. It's just so peaceful. The people live and dress like they have for generations and few over the age of 30 speak much English. However, most of the young people do speak English and at least a couple more languages, German and Japanese being among the most popular.

The village is made up of the main part with the steps leading up to the temple. There are several thangka, craft stores, restaurants and guest houses as you walk up. Once in awhile I will see a beggar at the temple, but it's rare. The merchants are not so aggressive as in Kathmandu or Bhaktapur.

The temple consists of a nice courtyard and many temples and idols. Beyond the temple grounds are steps leading down the hill with 108 steps. There is a nice lookout area at the temple, but if you walk down the steps you can follow the road to the end of the hill for views of many of the tourist sites in Kathmandu and sometimes you can see the big mountains. Our guest house is just at the end of the hill.

About the guest house: 
Modern, brand new building with screens on the windows and many other things Westerners have come to expect. Although you may find it humorous that I’m bragging about screens on the windows, you’ll understand when you get here.

Back-up electric system and emergency lamps in case the electrical blackouts last longer than the schedule suggests; it happens occasionally.

WIFI 24/7, fairly fast; think 1999.

Solar water system and back-up LP gas.

Clean, fully stocked kitchen with organic coffee and Nepali teas.

Organic vegetables when they are available.

Lovely views of the Kathmandu Valley along with a quiet location in an ancient village will provide a setting for a peaceful stay.

What’s included?
-Room with attached bath
-All rooms are decorated and fully furnished with a robe (for women), a lock box for valuables, bed with new foam mattress, toilet shoes, back-up lamp (for extended electrical problems), mosquito net and paddle, soap, extra blanket, towels and toilet paper.
-All the food you want to eat: Any vegetarian meal you want to eat while you are at the guest house will be individually prepared for you. Although we do not cook meat very often we do use cheese and have found sources for delicious cheese in Nepal.
-Shared ride in a private car to your daily activities in the Kathmandu Valley.
-Help and guidance on whatever you want to do or need help with. This is a family type atmosphere. I have an extensive knowledge of Nepal and have many contacts that will help you to have an enjoyable stay here.
What’s not included in long term stay:
-Medical insurance or medical expenses.
-Transportation to and from Nepal.
-Visa fees. A tourist visa costs about $2 per day.
-Any expenses arising out of unforeseen circumstances like flight delay/cancellation/hike in fare, strike or any other natural calamities.
-Personal nature expenses i.e. International Telephone Calls, Soft/Hard Drinks, meals while outside the guest house, tipping etc.
-Camera Fee & Entrance Fees to UNESCO sites/entertainment expenses.
- Anything not specified is probably not included.
- Meat. Our kitchen is primarily vegetarian due to refrigeration and sanitation issues in Nepal.

We just finished tiling the bottom floor for the restaurant, which we hope to be an Italian, vegetarian restaurant. Although we will have a menu for our guests off the street, our residents who live at the retreat center will be able to order anything they like, at no additional charge. We'll have tables downstairs in the restaurant, outside on the patio area and on the roof.

Although it looks like our location is just not so good for drop by guests, we have a cook who will prepare your meal for you and he is quite skilled. Keep in mind that he is Nepali, so you may need to coach him for something culturally unique to him. Our kitchen is cast iron or stainless steel, with the exception of one skillet and our old pressure cooker. As you can see, we have a lot of stuff, food processors, juicers, French press coffee makers and even a bread making machine and pasta maker.

Next, we have a living room with a TV on each floor for our guests. We have all the channels available to Nepal,  DVD player and a large DVD library. The cable channels don't work when our electric is cut because we are in the same load shed district as the cable company. I find that hilarious.

Here is one of the living rooms. I believe in having a lot of room to call your own and interact with others.

We have tables and umbrellas for the rooftop and patio area on the bottom floor.

I feel that some pictures of the rooms will be helpful. I haven't put all the curtains up on the windows yet. I didn't know quite what to do about them. I didn't want to cover up the beautiful views of the Himalayas and the Valley, but now I have a plan and will have them up shortly.

Each room is decorated with original artwork. 

Room descriptions/list prices:

Penthouse: $650 per month. This room features a king size bed that can be separated into 2 twin beds, a lovely view and it’s on the top floor so you can just step out to the rooftop where we have tables and umbrellas. We can put curtains on the windows to keep the light out, but there is no need of curtains for privacy; I just hate to cover the view. Room number C1

Small Rooftop room: Occupied. Room number C2

Second floor deluxe room: Same approximate size as the Penthouse, but with a queen size bed. $600 per month. Room Number B1.

Second floor small room: $500 per month. This room has a single size bed and faces the back. Although there is a shower, the bathroom is quite small and the resident of this room is welcome to use the common toilet for taking showers, just outside of the room. Room number B2.

First floor deluxe room: This room faces the lovely view side and features a king size bed that can also be two twin beds. $600 per month. Here it is shown with both bed layouts. Room number A1.

First floor small room: $500 per month. This room has a set of bunk beds, custom made a bit longer than the standard twin bed. This room also faces the back, which looks out at a little road few cars drive on. The bathroom is quite small, so the resident of this room will be welcome to use the common toilet for taking showers; it’s right outside the room.  This bathroom can be remodeled for you and this room is ideal for someone who is either traveling with someone or who is on a smaller budget. We can give this room for a reduced rate if you have a hardship. 

For more information on the project please see our website,