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. 


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