Thursday, May 23, 2013


What's in a name? 

I learned from our trekking guide, Deepak, that Sherpas were named for the day of the week which they were born. For example, our porters Lhakpa and Pemba's names mean Wednesday and Saturday, respectively. We also have a Nepalese friend whose name is Nima (adapted from Niyma), which means Sunday. Naturally, there are a lot of Nepalese with the same name.
(L to R: Deepak, Melissa, Joe, Lhakpa, Pemba, Carolyn, Jesse)


A landlocked country, Nepal is bordered by China to the north and east, and India to the south and west. So there is no wonder why the natives of this nation do not have one particular appearance. The Nepalese are unlike the Koreans, Japanese, Indians, or Filipinos all of whom have distinct facial features. The Koreans with the half moon eyes, with fair, clear skin. The Japanese with slightly more slanted eyes with more pointed or defined nasal bridge. The Indians with their cocoa-colored skin and more Middle Eastern facial features and bone structure. And Filipinos with their Asian eyes, Spanish complexion, and flat noses. The Nepalese are chameleon-like in their own country.

Some Nepalese look very Indian.

Others look more Chinese.

Yet others have an interesting blend of the two.


The people of Nepal are predominantly Hindu, though there are many practicing Buddhists, and surprisingly more who practice both religions together. Apparently, in Nepal, it is difficult to distinguish who is a Hindu or Buddhist. Both celebrate the same holidays and perform similar, if not the same, cultural traditions.  

Fact: The Pashupatinath Temple is one of the most significant Hindu temples of Lord Shiva in the world and is even listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Little-known Fact: Buddha was born in the Lumbini region of Nepal. 


Nepali is the official language of the country, but because the Nepalese used to live under the caste system, there were many different dialects developed over time. Those in higher castes were unable to speak or understand the lower castes, but lower caste members were required to learn Nepali. Nepali is used as the common ground to communicate across all castes. 

To my surprise, many natives speak English, and they speak it well and fluently. Signs are in English. Menus are in English. Hotels have English names. Why? I think it all boils down to tourism. 

Tourism is the money-making industry in Nepal. People from all over the world come to visit the various trekking circuits that the Himalayas has to offer, and of course, visit the world's highest mountain, Mt. Everest. Even just making it to Everest Base Camp is a journey thousands of people experience every year. 

It is because of tourism that English language schools are all over Kathmandu. For the same reason, merchants and street vendors all speak enough English to make sales. And it is because of tourism that many, if not all, of the trekking guides can speak and write in English. In fact, the government is involved in the training of the guides. Each Nepalese seeking employment as a tour operator must learn to read, write, and speak. Naturally, this makes it easier to communicate with all foreigners, and in the end game, earn a living. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Tribhuvan International Airport & Elbrus Home

Towards the end of the 1.5 hour flight, as we approached Kathmandu from Delhi, and we watched the airplane's progress on the maps screen on the personal tv while in-flight, it seemed like we were flying directly into a mountain range.  At times I wondered how close we would get to the mountains and it even crossed my mind that we might land in the mountains. But after peering out of the window, we saw that the airport actually lays in a relatively flat, dry, barren area.

Upon landing (on the 2nd attempt - first try was aborted just a few hundred feet above the runway), the jet taxied towards what I thought to be the terminal gate, but I quickly realized that there was no such thing as a jetway and we were about to deplane via staircase onto the tarmac. As we disembarked the aircraft, I couldn't help but feel like we landed in something well short of a first-world country. We watched as our bags were being removed from the belly of the plane and loaded onto a cart that was a trailer to the bus we were ushered towards which would drop us off at the international arrivals gate.

Arriving in Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport (KTM) immediately gives you the impression that you've landed in an old-world, third-world country. It is the only international airport in Nepal and only has 1 domestic and 1 international terminal, which connects the country to Asia, the Middle East, and some of Europe. And it's solitude in the country shows within the arrival terminal, baggage claim, and customs.

Just prior to reaching customs, there is an area where the window sills are lined with forms which you must complete and present to your immigration agent. It is here where people rush to fill out all the necessary information and attach their extra passport photos just to fall into 1 of 3 lines for processing. One line is for Nepalese nationals...empty. The other 2 lines are for foreigners.

As we approach the desk, I notice that there are 3 men sitting at 1 desk. The first man receives you, asks for how long you are staying (15, 30, or 90 days - Tourist Visa) and takes your payment for your Visa ($25 for 15 days, $40 for 30 days, or $100 for 90 days). Our trip was a total of 16 days, but the officer allowed us to pay for 15 days. The next officer receives your passport and scans to confirm that it is real and that there are no alerts on your identity. The last officer reviews the first two officers work, eyes your passport against your face, confirms your identity, returns your stamped passport with Visa and wishes you a pleasant day.

As we proceeded to retrieve our luggage from 1 of 3 old-looking carousels and exit the building, we stopped briefly by the foreign currency exchange counter to buy some Nepalese Rupees (NPR). With an exchange rate of $1 to 86Rs, you're getting a pretty good rate. Next to the forex counter was what ended up being a hassle. Two agents were feverishly trying to gain our attention and offered up lodging, trekking guides, tours, etc. Reluctantly, we stopped by to understand what they had to say.

We had in mind the name of a hostel where our friends had chosen to stay the night before. I inquired about this place, but it seemed that it wasn't on the agents' list of places to promote. I even asked about the Kathmandu Guest House whose owner is the brother of a doctor whom my mom works with at the hospital (3 degrees of separation). The agents kept saying that if we booked with them there would be a 10% discount. Unfortunately, we did not choose any of the options they kept trying to sell.

Instead, we joined our friends at the Elbrus Home, which turned out to be one of the best decisions we made. Although only a hostel, not a hotel, Elbrus Home was welcoming, warm, friendly, accommodating, inexpensive, and in a great location (walking distance to the shops in Thamel and even the Royal Palace; only a 40 minute walk to the Monkey Temple). Khem, one of the managers, and his brother were extremely helpful to us. They provided everything we needed, were so kind, and always encouraged us to take advantage of all the comforts that Elbrus had to offer.

For a reasonable $30 a night for a triple room with en-suite, you cannot go wrong. The rooms were basic but comfortable. A simple breakfast of fried eggs, toast with butter or jam, orange juice, coffee or tea, and bananas was included every morning, which you could take in the common room or more comfortably in the garden under some umbrellas. Rooftop seating that overlooked the Thamel district of Kathmandu was also available which we made use of to share cocktails. And a friendly conversation full of insight to the city and guide-like suggestions from the staff was more than enough to make the stay worth the few dollars we shelled out.

Unfortunately, after our return from the trek, we were unable to be accommodated at Elbrus Home due to capacity (see, they're popular), but they still picked us up from the airport and easily made arrangements for us to stay at their sister hotel, Avalon House, which is a 3 minute walk away from Elbrus Home on a side street away set back from the hustle and bustle of the main road.

Khem made it convenient for us (and financially beneficial to him and his colleagues, I'm sure) by connecting us with his friend Prem of Heian Treks & Expedition, where we eventually organized and purchased our Himalayan trek to Everest Base Camp.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Layover - New Delhi, India

Two seasons of The Layover and nine seasons of No Reservations and not one episode on New Delhi, India. Why, Mr. Bourdain? Indira Ghandi International Airport has fallen into the top 50 busiest airports in the world by passenger traffic since 2008.

I suppose New Delhi isn't necessarily a layover city though. Most people who travel to New Delhi are there for the long haul, a true visit, a vacation.'re on your way to Nepal...which is where my experience comes in and this Layover begins.

Disembarking our Air India flight was a relief after a 14 hour flight on one of the most uncomfortable flights I've ever taken. It started out at JFK where there was no sense or organization. Passengers were allowed to board at random without heeding any type of group boarding protocol. The flight was subsequently 1 hour late. The seat which I was assigned was broken and felt as if I was sitting directly on metal, and the tv failed to operate. After switching seats 3 times to try to locate an operative tv, I gave up because I did not have any luck. The only saving grace was that the food was ok.

Arrival Time: 5PM
Time Remaining: 12 Hours

Upon our arrival in New Delhi, our bags had to be picked up and were not checked through to our final destination of Kathmandu, Nepal. As long as I've been traveling, I've not experienced this type of procedure for a layover. We learned that if we had decided to stay in the airport, our bags would have been transferred automatically. Nevertheless, with Tourist Visas in hand (yes, we paid to leave the airport), we decided to venture out into the city, through it's rough roads, dangerous drivers, motorcycles, mopeds, and tuk-tuks.

Since our residence for the night would be Hotel Krishna on Arakashan Road, we decided that dinner should be in the neighborhood. A short walk down to Connaught Place in the Indira Chowk section of New Delhi allowed us to find a restaurant called Veda. The dim lighting, mirrors, dark leather-lined seats / chairs, and red brick walls gave the establishment somewhat of a gothic feel. But the friendliness of the staff and especially the manager, Prem, made us feel comfortable and allowed us to easily warm up to the good food.

We ordered garlic and plain roti, chicken curry, mutton curry, garlic scallion chicken, and plain basmati rice. Each dish had a signature flavor. The roti was freshly charred. The chicken curry was velvety in its sauce. The mutton and its spices stood out in this curry dish. The garlic scallion chicken (my favorite of all the dishes) was full of herb and spice. And the basmati was our strong base. For some reason, basmati is probably my favorite type of rice out of all the rice I've eaten in my life. Kingfisher, an Indian brew, was a good lager to help wash down all the heat and spice.

Time Remaining: 8 hours

Dilli Haat is just a short metro ride away from the Connaught Place area. For just 15 rupees you can get on the metro at Rajiv Chowk and exit at INA. Unlike ground level, the subways are very clean and surprisingly simple to navigate. The cost is determined by the distance you need to travel. And the token-operated turnstiles make it very efficient. We learned that on every metro, the front car is dedicated to women, while the rest of the cars are co-ed. Marquee displays on the platform indicate when the next metro is to arrive.

Anyway, Dilli Haat is an open air market or bazaar. The entrance fee is only 20 rupees and within you can find food, arts & crafts, clothing, souvenirs, henna, silk, and a variety of other items for purchase. Each stall has something different to offer, but many stalls have similar goods. So make sure to negotiate your price if you find something you like.

Time Remaining: 6 hours

We probably could have spent more time out in the city, but with our next flight to Kathmandu at 7AM and 14 days of trekking ahead of us, it would be wise for us to get a few hours of sleep and arrive back at the airport at least 2 hours before departure.

If heading out to the city during a short layover isn't ideal, then there are plenty of things to keep you occupied in the airport. Here is a link to IGI's facilities. They even have showers or if that's not enough, you can check into the airport's hotel.

Obviously, a layover is not enough for me to make any kind of judgements on New Delhi. And I can't wait to really have ample time to be a real tourist here and take in all the sites, food and fare, culture, and society. In due time, I will be back.