I flew into Nepal expecting to step off the plane and onto some snow-covered mountain, maybe with fluttering prayer flags overhead and the occasional Yeti.
In hindsight this was dumb, but in my defense that image of Nepal is what most people hold in their heads. Bold explorers with frostbitten toes planting flags everywhere, friendly Sherpa and plodding yak trains. The reality is quite different. It’s a country with a steep learning curve. Here are six things I picked up on my travels.
1. It’s not all mountains
Who would have thought, right? In the Sagarmatha region of Everest temperatures can drop to 50 degrees below zero and waterfalls freeze solid. But down in the Kathmandu Valley it’s practically tropical. They grow bananas there and everything.
Don’t get me wrong, the route between Lukla and Namche Bazaar is one of the prettiest you’ll find, and postcards don’t do the Annapurna peaks justice, but don’t pack exclusively for a summit attempt. You will sweat. It will be muggy. In August you’ll probably get more use out of your shorts and thongs than your $400 North Face jacket.
2. The food is awesome
Sandwiched between two growing superpowers, India and China, Nepal tends to borrow a little from both. There are communist elements that migrated south through the mountains and a caste system that obviously flowed north from the subcontinent. But the best cultural fusion is the food.
Think about it: what do we love about India? Curries. And China? Dumplings. Nepal has both! When you’re wandering through the choked alleyways of Thamel, pop into any Nepali restaurant and order a big plate of curried momos, chow fun and a couple of cold Ghorka beers. You’ll feel ready for mountain climbing in no time.
3. Rhinos live there
Most trekkers gravitate to just two places in all of Nepal: the Everest Basecamp trek and the Annapurna ranges. That’s about it. Together they account for a massive proportion of the country’s tourism. But Nepal has one other natural attraction that should be on your list: Chitwan National Park.
It’s a World Heritage-listed collection of jungles, marshes and grassland just to the southwest of Kathmandu. Sagarmatha may have the mountains, but nothing beats Chitwan when it comes to wildlife. You can safari here and spot one-horned rhino, deer and monkeys (if you’re really lucky, there’s also wild elephants leopards and the odd Bengal Tiger).
4. A Namaste goes a long way
A lot of countries claim to have the ‘friendliest locals in the world’, so you can take this with a pinch of cynicism if you want. I don’t mind. Nepal really does have the friendliest locals in the world. Unfailingly, wherever you are, whoever you meat, you’ll be greeted with a shy, humble smile and a sincere “Namaste”.
It’s more significant than any common hello: ‘Namaste’ actually means the recognition of one soul by another. When you consider these people have lived through a decade-long Maoist insurgency and multiple devastating earthquakes, their relentless optimism and ready smiles are actually kind of amazing. I get down when my fantasy footy team is struggling…
5. Nepal locals know how to party
Nepali people are a little like the Japanese: on the surface they’re quite modest and shy. But get a few rum and cokes into them and hit up the bars and clubs of downtown Kathmandu…yeah they know how to have a good time. If you’re in Kathmandu you’re probably staying in Thamel.
Club OMG was a personal favourite. It doesn’t get going until about midnight, but there’s a good live music venue right beneath where fresh-faced Nepali young men belt out warbly Bryan Adams covers. Hey, New York it is not, but a night out in Kathmandu can still be pretty epic if you do it right. (Pro tip: nothing lines the stomach like momos).
6. Nepali porters may be the strongest people in the world
When we were trekking towards Everest, the most amazing thing wasn’t so much the views (which are awesome, but you know, there’s only so many stunning mountain vistas you can appreciate at a time). It was the porters.
A lot of the freight in the mountains gets transported by yak trains – six or seven huge shaggy-haired beasts that look as if they could pull a jumbo jet – the rest is done by porters….on foot…just carrying stuff. We saw old men who couldn’t have been over 5-feet high carrying sacks of rice, doors and, in one ridiculous instance, a freaking galvanized water tank on their backs. Up steep mountain paths and over rocky shale. All day long. For months at a time. I was sweating with just a backpack on, and it was only filled with chocolate in any case.