Saturday, May 31, 2014

Balthali Nepal: Part of seven nights in the valley


I booked the hotel Balthali Village Resort without much thought.  Several reviews claim the village of Balthali is one of the most picturesque in the valley, with some of the best non-elevated hikes in Nepal.  I definitely wanted to check out the area.  Alas, I didn’t find many choices for accommodation other than BVR, so I skimmed its positive reviews and just booked it.

As I sat in Bhaktapur the morning before I was due to arrive, I realized I didn’t quite know how to get to this next destination.  I emailed BVR, but didn’t get a quick response.  I had no idea how much a taxi from Bhaktapur to Balthali town would cost.  I inquired this of Yam, the manager at my Bhaktapur hotel, the night before I was to leave for Balthali.  Yam looked at me quizzically.  He asked whether I was staying at the hotel BVR.  When I replied “yes”, he said that I had to take a taxi to a different town called Kopasi, and then basically hike uphill for about an hour to reach the resort.  The grade was too rough and steep for normal cars.  Come again?  Are you joshing me?  Hike uphill for an hour with all of my around-the-world luggage?  Not a chance.

My head raced with possibilities.  Should I leave my luggage in Balthali and come back afterwards? Could I find someone else to take me?  Was Yam wrong?  Surely, cars make it up to the hotel.  How can it function otherwise?

Yam told me to hold on, and that he would talk to BVR and see if they could come and pick me up from Bhaktapur.  Yam winked and said the owner was his uncle and had a 4WD jeep.  Huh?  Uncle?  Was this a joke, or a figurative term for an older friend?  Yam tried several numbers before he reached someone.  After a brief conversation, he said that his uncle would come pick me up at my Bhaktapur hotel and take me to BVR for R2500, which Yam proclaimed to be a good price.

I was in no position to argue or negotiate, so agreed.  I went to my room and double checked online.  Sure enough, several of the reviews mentioned the difficulty in reaching the hotel.  The hotel sits atop of a giant hill (or mountain, depending on your point of view).   “Roads” in this part of Nepal can mean anything from a paved superhighway, to a single lane dirt and rock pathway barely suitable for oxen.  Apparently, one needed a powerful four wheel drive vehicle to motor all the way to the hotel itself.  Oh great.

The next morning, a car from BVR arrived at 9 am and picked me up.  A gregarious fellow hopped out of the car and got into a happy, animated discussion with the rest of my hotel’s staff.  Apparently, this older guy, Ram, really was Yam’s uncle!  Well, his older male relative third removed on the mother’s side or something like that anyway.   Soon the uncle, his driver, and I were off on a bumpy and jostling ride in the 4WD jeep.

As it turned out, Ram dropped me off at Kopasi town instead of driving me all the way in any case.  He said I could drive all the way up, but why?  The drive was boring.  Why miss a chance for a good hike with views?  He had a porter there in Kopasi town to carry my luggage, and a guide to lead the way for the one hour hike.  I was tempted to ask him whether this reduced the rate.  I figured Ram was in fact headed off to somewhere else, which is why he had the porter there instead of just using the jeep for my luggage at least.  Still, I was in the mood for a hike so readily agreed.

If I were to picture what Kathmandu Valley should look like, this was it.  The area was simply gorgeous.  I had been spoiled by the terraced rice paddies of Sapa Vietnam, but this valley was beautiful on an absolute level with farming terraces, majestic hills, and the taller mountains in the background.   I always pictured that Kathmandu, being a part of Nepal, would have a healthy amount of nature.  If the city itself punctured that illusion, Balthali provided reassurance of Nepal’s native beauty.

At points, the trek was steep, but for the most part manageable.  I did feel a little guilty for my porter, as he had to carry my roll-on luggage in what was surely an uncomfortable position.  I gave him a nice tip, and reminded myself that porters make a living doing this for trekkers.

I confess to huffing a bit by the time we reached the hotel about an hour later.  The views from the hotel were magnificent, as it sits on the highest nearby point in the valley.  I felt like I was in a different country from Kathmandu city.  The infrastructure of the hotel itself leaves a bit to be desired, but one needs to have realistic expectations.  I can only imagine how difficult it is to lug materials up here.  Despite the name of “resort”, one should think of it more as a basic mountain lodge in a beautiful setting.  By that test, BVR is a great place.

After lunch, I did a three hour hike late that afternoon.  It was a lovely trek.  At some points, the climb was difficult.  At other points, the terrain was narrow and steep and I imagined how easy it would be to tumble off the side into a deep crevice.  I pushed these thoughts away and followed my guide as best as I could.

Overall, though, the hike was good exercise and rather manageable, with lots of scenic views to make a trekker happy.

I also really liked the people I met along the way, ranging from hardworking farmers to prankster playing kids.

 At several points, some locals would join the trek part way, just for the company.  This included a jovial woman who I would have sworn was madly drunk in the middle of the day, and a farmer who had finished tending to his field on the mountain side.  My guide was good, but his English wasn’t great, so the translation was very stilted.  Nonetheless, goodwill is universally understood.

Several sights gave me pause for thought.  First, there were cacti in many places.  I didn’t think that this climate was really suitable for those desert plants but to my surprise they were out in force in several spots. 

Then there were people chiseling rocks off the side of the mountain.  I then realized that they were using these to build houses, fortify dirt roads, and serve as fencing.   Talk about construction as hard work! 

A couple times, we came upon some wild fruit that the guide wanted me to eat.  I found it OK but he loved the stuff.

At one point, we came to a junction where the guide pointed to one side and said “clean river” and the other side “dirty river”.  The rivers were right next to each other and looked identical to my untrained eye.  Many people in Balthali drink straight from the tap, since they consider it pure spring water.  The “dirty” river, however, flowed from another uphill village first.  During my stay, the newspapers reported alarmingly about a cholera outbreak in a part of Nepal due to unclean water soiled by upstream villages.  I stuck to the bottled stuff during my stay just to be safe.
Dinner in the hotel restaurant was satisfactory, but overshadowed by the weather.  The climate changed dramatically as dinner ended.  The day had started out clear and beautiful, but off in the distance, the clouds roared angrily with thunder. Lightning streaks lit up the evening skies like nature’s fireworks.  In their own way, the flashes were beautiful.  Soon, however, the rains started and became steadily heavier.  I sat on a covered porch and lit up a post dinner cigar, being thankful for just being here.  Forget dinner, today had been a visual feast.  I went to bed afterwards.

The hotel was almost empty, with only two other guests.  The staff, nonetheless, remained attentive.  I had planned a morning hike, but since it was still raining after breakfast, I cancelled it.  I don’t mind getting wet, but I thought it dangerous.  The dirt and wet rocks created a much too slippery condition for my liking.  It rained the entire rest of the day, so I spent it just looking out into the peaceful valley, which was totally OK with me.

All too soon, it was time for me to leave BVR.  The hotel jeep drove me all the way back to Thamel.  I thought the price of R3500 might be a bit high, but once in the jeep, I appreciated even more how difficult it was to navigate these roads, especially in the wet mud.  At times, I was sure that the jeep would either stall or slip off the road and down a creivice, but the driver knew his stuff.

After a long white knuckled and bumpy ride, we made it down the mountain and onto pavement.  Along the way, I did see some interesting stuff though the rain, contrary to Ram's earlier assertion.

We drove through Bhaktapur on the way.  I had to do a double take.  This modern city had no resemblance to the old town that I had visited just a day or two ago.  It looked much more “modern”, and was huge, with a super highway running right through the middle of it.  Bhaktapur looked more like a slightly cleaner version of Kathmandu city than the quaint small ancient town of my earlier visit.  It just goes to show you…as a traveler, we only get glimpses of our destination despite our best efforts.

For those who are spending their entire Nepal stay in the valley, I highly recommend making it out to Balthali, or perhaps a similar location.  I had purposely focused my Nepal trip on culture and history rather than nature appreciation.  I thus limited my stay to the valley rather than travel farther away in Nepal. After a bit, however, the craziness and smogginess of Kathmandu city makes one yearn for a little bit of nature.  There are places in the valley that can provide that respite, and give the traveler a more complete picture of this unique country. 


Bhaktapur Nepal: Part of seven nights in the valley

Again, unlike earlier posts, I have limited photos in the Blog itself as Blogger makes it too difficult to add many of them in a convenient format.  For this particular post, this is a large limitation as the Bhaktapur experience is best told in pictures.  

If you are interested, you can find photos of Bhaktapur city here

and Changu Naryan, the nearby village, here


I flew back into Nepal after my short side trip to India.  This time, I booked a window seat so that I could catch the breathtaking views of the Himalayas as they peaked through the clouds.

My immediate destination was Bhaktapur.  Many consider Bhaktapur to be the most beautiful city in Nepal, but that may be a low bar.   The city used to be the capital of Nepal way back when, and the old city remains a protected historic zone.  For example, they have banned cars along the narrow cobblestone streets.  Due to this and other measures, the old city appears like the land that time forgot, where people still practice many of the traditional ways of life.

Many tourists go to visit the town’s main squares, but I much more enjoyed just wandering the various random winding streets.  I watched and met the local people as they went about their normal daily lives, and felt enriched in the process.  The visit exceeded my expectations.

I booked myself into the strangely named Planet Bhaktapur Hotel.  PB Hotel is not in the old city itself, but is about 1km outside.  Thus, one has to hike a bit to get to the sites.  At first, I thought that this was a bit of a bummer, but in the end, I appreciated being outside the city gates in an open-field farmhouse hotel like setting.

The hotel driver picked me up at the airport, and then drove me to Thamel to pick up my remaining luggage before heading to the hotel.   The hotel is situated on a hillside, overlooking some farms.  The rooms are basic, but the inner courtyard is a pleasant place to have meals or a drink.  There were only two other guests during my stay, as this was offseason.  Apparently, the high season is already fully booked on many days.

The first day, I limited myself to the west side of the old city, including Durbar Square

and to its immediate south, Taumadhi Square.

The first is the main square, while the latter is considered the most important one, with the highest pagoda in Nepal.  I thought both squares were nice, but was eager to explore the side streets.

I stumbled across many districts, including pottery square and the Siddha Pokhari, which is the largest pond in the city.

I met many people everywhere, and that was clearly the best part of being in the city.

At the pond, I had a brief alarming moment when a group of young kids approached me.  I have a hand disinfectant attached to my backpack.  One of the kids asked what that was, so I explained.  Without asking, he squirted some on himself and smiled.  Soon the next kid did the same and a mob riot soon threatened as all the kids wanted to try.  I could see the headlines: Stupid Foreigner Drowns in Pond Escaping Sanitary Kids.

I pulled back and firmly said no repeatedly.  The kids at first persisted, but eventually gave up.  In fact, the kid who first started the whole thing cracked me up when he shouted in fairly good English: “Yes, don’t give them any! Don’t give it to them! Stay away boys!”

The pond didn’t look particularly clean, but kids were happily playing and swimming in it.  Other young people were in fact bathing or washing their hair in that green and muddy water.

Off in one side, I noticed a group of teenage guys smirking.  When I walked over there, I noticed that they were staring at two teenage girls in the water.  They would shoo the boys away from watching, and then provocatively splash around pretending to swim, while playfully tugging each others’ clothes and giggling hysterically.  There was no way those boys were ever going to leave.

Speaking of water, right around 5pm, many of the women in the village went to the well pumps to get water for the night.  They huddled and crowded around every pump in the old city.  At first, I asked myself why they didn’t just do it when the pumps were less crowded.  Then I realized that for the women, this was also a social event, a moment for their little cliques to catch up on the daily gossip before heading home to prepare the evening meal.

I approached one group with my usual “Namaste”, a smile, and a request to take a photo.  One woman stood up and started yelling at me “Namaste?  Namaste???” followed by Nepali words that I couldn’t understand.  The other women burst out laughing and she started to smile as well.  I gathered that she was asking me to pump the water instead of snapping a photo.  I obliged for a bit.  Let me tell you, pumping those things isn’t as easy as it looks.  After an appropriate period where my manhood wouldn’t be questioned, I bade the ladies goodbye with a smile on my own face.

I awoke the next morning famished.  When I came down for breakfast, there was a new guest who had just arrived from Italy.  The hotel is owned by an Italian, and strange to my ears, several of the local staff also speak Italian.  Consequently, PB Hotel is a bit of hit among Italian trekkers.  I sat with the new guest and chatted for a bit over breakfast.

He was a really interesting guy, off to Everest Base Camp, and we had a wide ranging conversation.  The coffee seemed a little curdled, and the eggs seemed a little off, but none of this registered as I enjoyed talking with my new Italian friend about common places in the world we had seen.

My morning plan was to head of Changu Narayan village and its temple, another World Heritage Site nearby.  It was a short taxi ride away, or about a 1.5 hour hike.  I opted instead to take the bus as other reviewers had done for the “local” experience.  I found the bus stop easily, thanks to the help of a friendly guy carrying a rifle, but had to wait around for the bus to arrive, and then wait further inside a hot jammed packed bus until the driver deemed it time to leave.  I was second guessing my choice.  Eventually, the bus left and climbed the hill to Changu Narayan.

To be honest, I didn’t find the temple to be particularly awesome, and didn’t spend a lot of time there.

I did, however, enjoy the 1.5 hour hike back to the hotel, as it took me through the country side and local homes where I could see village life in action.  I did the usual, watching and trying to interact with the locals, and had a very good time.

Towards the end, however, my joints started to ache.  At first, I was puzzled since I hadn’t really exerted myself.  Soon, I felt like I had a flu.  I frowned.  From prior bad experiences, I knew I probably had a case of food poisoning.  Yikes!  It must have been breakfast.  One of my cardinal travel rules is to avoid restaurants with low turnover.  The ingredients get stale easily, so at a minimum, avoid perishables in such places.  The hotel’s low occupancy puts their kitchen at risk, and the dice had come out wrong in this case.  I am guessing it was the eggs.

I didn’t feel that badly, but I did skip lunch.  I went back to the old city in the afternoon to explore the east side of the city this time.

I had fun doing so, but as the day progressed, I felt progressively worse.   By the time I got back to the hotel, I was definitely ill.  Great.  After four weeks in Southeast Asia and Nepal, I have no problems until I eat my hotel breakfast!  This is always the case.  The most suspicious kitchens never cause any problems; it’s always been the one’s that appear “safer.”

A bad case of the chills attacked me that night, so I got up and put on multiple layers of clothing, including a sweat shirt and rain jacket.  I felt very sick.  I tossed and turned in and out of sleep, until I started getting too hot and thus started shedding clothing.  When I woke in the morning, I was back to my usual T-shirt and briefs.  I had improved from overnight, but still felt under the weather.  I don’t like to take meds unnecessarily, but I carry Cipro with me when I travel to certain destinations.  It was time to break those babies out.  Within 24 hours, I was more or less back to normal.  I should have popped those pills from the beginning.

I don’t really blame the hotel for the incident.  These cases can happen in any establishment, and again, I would have been fine had I followed my own rules.  In fact, for my departure breakfast, I ordered the safer Newari plate (ie. no real perishables).  I enjoyed it and felt fine.

I encourage everyone to wander around the side streets in Bhaktapur’s old city.  The people are wonderful, and eager to engage foreigners.  Approach them with respect and curiosity, and a whole different world opens up.

I even recommend PB Hotel for accommodations.  While the old city is accessible by taxi directly from Kathmandu, I think it a much better experience to stay near the old city itself and hike around a bit, including the hike from Changu Narayan.  I felt a real appreciation for the traditional way of life, and I almost forgot about the chaos of Kathmandu.  This is one place I hope to return one day.

P.S. I later discovered that modern Bhaktapur is a large city as “modern” as Kathmandu.  I saw none of this during my stay at Bhaktapur, as I remained in the old city.  I was enlightened only on my drive back to Kathmandu from Balthali village.