Monday, September 16, 2013

Couchsurfing in Kathmandu

This is Day 9 of Nepal Travelogue (May 21, 2013)
Mikael Enjoying the Hospitality Exchange

Following an eventful jungle expedition at Chitwan National Park, we came back to Kathmandu last evening and stayed at the same Budhanilkantha Family Kitchen for yet another night. The same room which was alien and ghostly just one week back was giving us a cozy vibe, partly because of the repeat experience and partly because of the caring Buddhist family; Sonam, his mother and sister. They even especially bought a kiddies’ bedsheet for our last night there and when we were leaving the whole family came outside to see us off!

Otherwise also, we generally found common Nepalese friendly and openhearted. One such person was Shally, a kindhearted Couchsurfer, who arranged to drop us personally to our next second home – Kathrine’s family where we would stay for the next few days – courtesy again Couchsurfing.

Had it not been an infringement in privacy, I could have dedicated this whole post to kind Kathrine, sociable Zaeem, and their equally lovely son Ryan who quickly accepted Misha and Mikael as his friends and was not hesitant in sharing his toys!

The expat family, who was living in an upscale Kthamandu neighborhood around Patan opened their hearts and doors for us and walked extra miles to make all of us feel comfortable. From the Swiss coffee to the mint flavored water and from those sumptuous dinners to arranging for rides around the town, they raised the hospitality bars too high. We also tried to reciprocate that by taking Pakistani gifts and then Urooba also prepared Chicken Karhai later on, but obviously this was no match of their generosity.

Apart from shifting from Budhanilkantha to Patan, we did nothing much today and no photography. From tomorrow, it will be the beginning of Part 3 when we would explore the Kathmandu valley, attend the Budha Jayanti festival in Bhaktapur, and visit the Nagarkot hill station till Day 14.So stay tuned for a another bunch of colorful posts.

Today’s Bills – in Nepali Rupees

200 Gifts Honey
110 Food Milk, etc
80 Grocery Including beard trimming!
430 Gifts For local friends
100 Telephony Mobile recharge
130 Gifts Sweets for BFK staff!
50 Logistics Microbus - Budhanilkantha to Koteshore
600 Accommodation Hotel Room Charges
500 Food Hotel Food Bill
2200 Total for May 21, 2013
27640 Total as of Today

Traveler’s Tip # 17: Hospitality Exchange
Friends often ask how could we manage to travel frequently? Especially the money thing – because traveling is considered an expensive endeavor. Some even suggest that we should rather save this money and perform Hajj first. So let me share the secret; this is the online Hospitality Exchange communities, especially Couchsurfing, which has enabled us traveling without getting bankrupted. Idea is simple; you host members of the community in your hometown, for free, and in return the community members welcome you at their place, convenience permitting.

Initially, I was a bit skeptical of the idea, due to security concerns mainly, but our first experience, when we hosted a French honeymooning couple on their Round the World road trip, was helpful in removing some doubts. Now after some more experiences, of both hosting and surfing, I can say this is not only a great way to save money while traveling and travel more but also an authentic source of cultural exchange.

This is, however, not as easy as it sounds, especially when you are travelling. First you need to invest time in searching and reading profiles of potential hosts before you start traveling. Second, you send requests mentioning your travel plan and why are you interested in staying with a particular host. Finally you patiently wait for a response, which is negative more often than not.

As everybody has their own preferences, we prefer surfing with family friendly hosts only, which limits our option so we often take resort to family run guesthouses. Even then, extensive network of these communities is helpful to get insider tips, before or during the trip, and if you are luckier you get in touch with someone who may show you around!

Traveler’s Tip # 18: Beware of Touts and Tourist Traps
While looking for some help at Couchsurfing Kathmandu forum, I noticed that most of the group members were there to find customers, which was a setback for me as this community is built with the spirit of mutual support without seeking commercial benefit.   

These touts were not limited to the internet as we were bugged almost everywhere in Nepal  by touts selling their touristy propositions hard. At times, this became unbearable. However, I would not blame Nepalese alone for this menace because this happen at every place which is a tourist target.  

So if you plan to go to Nepal, be aware of these touts. Try collecting information about your trip before you travel because this is the information gap which leads to a tourist trap. Always believe in your instincts and don’t lock-in to a deal without haggling around. In the meantime, try to be respectful amd responsible and as don’t throw away money just because you feel that your currency can buy a hell lot of local Rupees!

We did not encounter something dangerously bad; however, it is more about touts forcing you to go to their preferred outlets or they will try to charge you more than the market or try selling a souvenir at a ridiculous price. Whatever they do, they will be really compelling and so you need to be firm and determined.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Rising High to the Manakamana Temple

This is Day 8 of Nepal Travelogue (May 20, 2013)

Manakamana Cable Car
After 3 days of jungle excursions, it was time for us to go back to Kathmandu to explore capital’s cultural treasures. We had two options; either to go directly, the same way we came here, or make an enroute stopover to visit the Manakamana Temple.

This Hindu temple is one of the major ones in Nepal and attracts a great number of devotees. Located in Gorkha Hills, it can be approached through a steep cable car; main reason why we were interested in the pilgrimage.

And a pilgrimage is not complete without a sacrifice. Ours was to wake up in the wee hours to catch the pre-dawn microbus; the only reasonable alternate to the afternoon tourist bus from this logistically cut-off town. But that was not the only sacrifice as after an hour of smooth sailing we got stuck in a land sliding on the Narayanghat-Mugling Highway disrupting the traffic for 2-3 hours.

It was getting more humid with every minute and with the AC turned-off and two kids in the tow, it looked like Gods were not happy with our sacrifices.

From Sauhara to Kurintar, cable car’s base station, we did 70 km in ~5 hours, showing that traveling in the hill country can be frustratingly slow on a bad day. From the drop-off point the base station was also an extensive walk so I deposited the heavy backpack to a roadside shop first thing after getting alight from the hi-ace.

The gentle drizzling was a welcome change for us. Green hills were adding holiday flavor to the surrounding while the ambiance was also festive and colorful. Enthusiastic local families – lined up at the ticket counter – were enjoying best of both worlds; religious journey and the picnic!

The ride itself was an experience worth the post morning hassle. The coupé elevated from 250m to 1,300m, an amazing 1,000m, in ~10 minutes. Interestingly there was a cloud cover, both above and beneath! Change in temperature was also remarkable; in fact the quickest in my life. It was like moving from humid Karachi to chilly Naran in 10 minutes!

Uphill it was more joyous and sacred. Devotees were pushing themselves towards the temple with fervor while the vendors on both sides of the walkway along with photographers were distracting the devotees with even more fervor. 

In this happening environment, presence of black goats and that too for sacrificial purposes was a surprise for us, as we could only think of Dharmic religion as of vegan. However, later in Kathmandu we got more enlightened knowing that unlike most of India, animal slaughtering is a common practice around Nepali temples, so much so that one of the temples claims conducting biggest animal sacrifice on earth including 15000 buffalo plus other animals! Safe for beef, Nepali Hindus don’t mind having meat either; chicken, mutton, buffalo, etc.

Unfortunately, we could not make it all the way to the temple and had to come down, through the same chairlift, because of the drizzling was getting heavier and then we wanted to make it back to Kathmandu before sunset – which proved not an easy task.

After a some effort and Urooba’s resilience we managed to reach Budhanilkantha’s Family Kitchen where we would stay for one more night before starting Part 3 of Nepal trip from the next day.

It Was This Early That Even Hotel Gates Were Closed
Stuck in the Land Sliding
Long Queue
Reached Kurintar - Cable Car's Base Station
Vendors on the Main Prithvi Highway
Deposited the Backpack Here
First We Had to Go Down
Sign Board
Devotees Started Coming In
Rush at the Ticket Station
Aesthetic Walkway to the Cable Car
Manakamana Ticket: NPR 475 for SAARC Nationals
We Were Waiting for Our Turn
Now Seated Inside
It Was Really Steep
Add caption
Banana Tree on the Hill
Trees and Clouds
Will Heaven Be Like This?
Cloud 9!
Up the Hill
Pilgrims Included People of All Ages
Showers Were Getting Heavier
Vendors On the Top
Manakamana Temple
Coming Down
Back to the Base Station
It Was Picturesque All Around
Black Goat For Sacrifice

Today’s Bills – in Nepali Rupees

Bus Ticket - Chitwan to Manakamana
Sight Seeing
Cable Car Ticket - Manakamana 
Luggae Hold - Manakamana
Tea, Paratha, etc
Bus Ticket - Manakamana to KTM
Microbus - KTM to Budhanilkantha
Milk, etc
Total for May 20, 2013

Total as of Today

Traveler’s Tip # 16: Manakamana Cable Car Enroute Chitwan or Pokhara
If either of Chitwan or Pokhara is there in your Nepal itinerary, then stopping by at Kurintar for Manakamana cable car is highly recommended for a rich combination of natural and cultural experience. It is advisable to reach the base station as early to avoid the rush of followers which grows as the day passes and can result in long queues. Two-way ticket price is NPR 475 for SAARC nationals and USD 15 for foreigners. And if you would also like to take a sacrificial goat along, keep NPR 180 extra bearing in mind that you may not bring it back!

Logistics is a challenge though because both Chitwan and Pokhara are best done by direct tourist buses from Kathmandu and breaking the journey for Manakamana means you have to do the onward travel at your own which might not be the easiest thing albeit it is located right on the Prithvi Highway. We also found it difficult to find a couple of seats in the passing-by microbuses, our best bet, as other buses, especially coasters, were more of a tourist trap and should be avoided at all costs.

Getting a transport from Chitwan was also not easy, especially when we wanted avoid the afternoon tourist bus, due to time constraints. We had to do a little effort to find out that there would be a hi-ace early in the morning which would be our best bet. The extra effort was more due to the unavailability of information as everyone we asked looked like making a commission rather than directing the relevant person, whom we finally found around Rhino Chowk. Just to mention, they charge the full ticket to Kathmandu, i.e. NPR 400, no matter we dropped off half the way, but we didn't mind that due to no other options. Good thing was that the hi-ace came to pick us up right from the hotel. It is another tail that it then picked every other passenger from their homes!