I had two options as I saw it: Take a train to Dharmasala – home of the exiled Dalai Lama – or head north for the border and travel into Nepal. It was a hard choice but I chose the latter in a somewhat haphazard manner. I wanted to visit a new country, see the Himalayas and check out anti-trafficking NGO, Maiti Nepal. I wanted to get away from everything familiar including Thailand and India. Not that India will ever be completely familiar but you get my gist. I had a single-entry visa into India which meant I would lose it upon exit into Nepal, but my Indian and Nepali friends assured me that I could manage my way back into India with a little cash donation at immigration. They suggested it. I went for it.
We made our way to the Sonauli border from Varanasi, entered Nepal with ease, and headed eight hours north to Kathmandu. I assumed I would hate Kathmandu just as I assume I will hate nearly every capital city in Asia but I was wrong. Yet again. Kathmandu sits at an elevation of 4,600 feet. It is nestled in Kathmandu Valley surrounded by the Himalayas. From the ancient palaces at Darbar Square to the magnificent Boudhanath temple, Kathmandu is full of historical sites, inspiring temples and delicious restaurants. Kathmandu can get quite cold in winter – something I wasn’t entirely prepared for. First purchase: North Fake coat and Nepali wool hat. One year in Southeast Asia and my body can’t seem to handle anything less than 75 degrees. My initial observations of Nepal is that it has quite possibly the worst roads I’ve ever seen; it is surprisingly cleaner than India (no cow shit, trash mounds or betel spit) and the Nepali people are gorgeous as is the country itself.
Boudhanath temple is quite possibly the most enchanting temple I’ve ever seen. It was teeming with Tibetan Buddhists paying homage, chanting mantras with Tibetan prayer wheels. Their faces warm, kind and gentle. I was blown away by them, actually. There is a calm and special nature about the Tibetan people despite the atrocities they have suffered over the last 60 years as China has done everything in its power to confiscate their land and obliterate their culture. Yet the Tibetan people persevere. Nepal is equal parts Buddhist and Hindu and the two have commingled quite well. My visit to Maiti Nepal was underwhelming at best. I’ve always been impressed with Maiti Nepal’s work especially their policing of the India/Nepal border. Founder, Anuradha Koirala, was awarded the 2010 CNN Hero of the Year Award so I was really looking forward to my visit. While headquarters was professional and a-buzz with people running here and there and the infrastructure was impressive, the man who gave me a “tour” seemed put off by my being there even though I had called ahead. Getting information out of him was like pulling teeth so I asked for some brochures and went on my way.
We then made our way to Pokhara, a small tourist city and jumping off spot for most trekkers preparing to enter the wild. Pokhara was delightfully sunny and relaxed and is home to some of the best Italian food I’ve ever eaten. We enjoyed many carb-heavy meals, glasses of wine and Prosecco (are you kidding me?), and side-splitting laughter. The highlight of Pokhara was Sarangkot. To get to Sarangkot for sunrise, one must wake up at 4 a.m., taxi up a wildly steep and curvy road only to be dumped where the cement ends. One must then climb steep stairs for an hour in the dark until you reach the viewing point of Sarangkot. Hiking at 5 a.m. without a flashlight was not my smartest move but there was something magical about it. The view at Sarangkot was worth every ounce of sweat. Once the sun came up, the Annapurna mountain range was revealed. There are no words for these peaks. Having grown up in the mountains, I can say I’ve never seen anything like the Himalayas. They are beyond majestic. I’ve never found god in any temple but I might’ve found god at Sarangkot. It might just be heaven on Earth.
After a few days, it was time to return to Sonauli and cross the border back into India. We took a 500 Nepali rupee public bus for 10 hours of unfathomable fun. Fumes, overcrowding, steep curves, shitty seats and potholes that damn near give you whiplash. It’s a miracle none of us lost an eye. A pull of whiskey here and there made it somewhat tolerable. Finally we arrived at Nepali immigration. Stamped. Signed. Off you go. Then we entered Indian immigration. The officials took one look at my passport and denied my reentry. I was told I would have to return to Kathmandu to apply for a transit visa at the consulate. Oh no! I tried giving the immigration officials a “special donation” but they weren’t having it. I even tried crying as most Indian men go berserk when women cry. No dice. I tried again just for good measure. Nope. The officials said I had a choice. I could go back to Kathmandu and get the visa needed to reenter the country legally or I could walk across the border into India (they would turn a blind eye) and hope for the best. That was the easy route but visions of being detained in Calcutta and the idea of seeing an Indian jail was fear enough for me to return to Kathmandu. The immigration officer was right. I was in the wrong. And who I am to think I can bribe my way across international borders? The head officer saw my frustration and asked what he could do to help. I told him I needed money if I had to make my way back to Kathmandu. To my utter shock and awe, he pulled out his wallet and gave me a fistful of cash. I guess there’s a first for everything!
We made our way 10 hours back to Kathmandu in the middle of a nationwide uproar. Nepali students had organized a demonstration protesting the recent hike in fuel price. They were blocking all major roadways to stop transport trucks from delivering supplies. Their way of saying, “You’re going to arbitrarily raise the cost of petrol? We’re going to shut down business.” While I didn’t disagree with their protest, I had to get to Kathmandu quickly. At each road block we had to explain that we were tourists on our way to the consulate. Image mobs of men with sticks, rocks and street fires ready to rumble. The protest was surprisingly non-violent and with a little nudge and nod of approval, we were let through all roadblocks. Until we came to one run by an idiot. He was young, ego-driven, clueless and stubborn. He said we would have to wait until morning to pass. By this time, I was delirious, tired and over it. I exited the car, slammed the door, stood face-to-face with the man half my size and said, “I respect what you’re doing but I’m not your government. Nor am I the gas and oil companies. I’m a tourist in trouble with immigration. I’m going to get back in my car and drive through your checkpoint. And I ain’t asking your permission. Dig?” And off we went.
Back in Kathmandu, I spent two hours at the Indian Consulate and secured my transit visa that afternoon. Not bad for a country that has poor infrastructure, electricity blackouts and rampant corruption. Soon we were on our way back to Sonauli. Upon our arrival 10 exhausting hours later, we realized we were missing a bag. And in that bag contained a credit card. And a passport. You’ve. Got. To. Be. Kidding. Me. We were stuck yet again. We called our Nepali friend and trekking guide extraordinaire, Narayan, in Kathmandu and he said he’d put the bag on the next plane to Sonauli. We’d just have to wait for it to land. Could be one hour; was more like five. Turns out Nepal is a lot like the Hotel California.
Once the plane landed, we had what we needed. Passports and valid visas? Check. We made our way back into India effortlessly after an incredibly exciting and adventurous 10 days in Nepal. Nepal is perhaps one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever seen. And the Nepali people we met along the way were equally wonderful. It’s a country I will definitely return to given the opportunity. But in that moment we were never happier to see our beloved India…