1. To experience the Pokhara Street Festival, held annually in the days leading up to New Year's. This was an enjoyable time to be in Lakeside, when the main road is closed to (most) vehicular traffic, the mostly Nepali attendees mosey down the street, and all of the shops and restaurants take over the sidewalk with temporary stalls. The first few days were not very crowded, so we did the majority of our festival-going then. In fact, we didn't even step out on NYE proper due to dietary tract distress (perhaps induced by some of the previously consumed street food...).
2. To meet up with our friend Debbie and her family who live in a village near Pokhara. We knew Debbie from our time in Breckenridge, just before she left for Nepal, started volunteering, and met her Nepali husband Chandra. Six years later, they have two adorable kids, Luna and Sol. We strolled the Street Festival with them one evening and another afternoon got our first moped ride to Chandra's sister's house for dinner and some more hanging out. It was lovely to reconnect with someone from our past and they have been a great resource for us as we navigate travel in Nepal.
3. To plan "Kohncation 2015"! Matt's parents, Esther and Mike, had been ready to visit us for months before we were able to commit to a date. During our last week of trekking, we gave them the go-ahead on short notice for January. Within 24 hours, they had their plane tickets booked for a Kathmandu arrival in two weeks! Luckily, I love any opportunity to do some focused travel research and planning. Combined with another week spent back in Kathmandu, we had an itinerary put together, hotels booked, and transport arranged for their month-long trip with several hours to spare before meeting them at the airport.
We had strategically decided on a more gentle introduction to Nepal than Kathmandu, especially after they had just survived more than 48 hours of travel time, including an overnight layover in Qatar. So we whisked them an hour and a half away from the airport to Nagarkot, a touristic village for both foreigners and Nepalis to enjoy a panorama of mountain views in more breathable air. The taxi ride alone was an eye-opening experience given that we were leaving the city in Friday rush-hour traffic through impoverished areas on the outskirts. This soon gave way to careening around hairpin turns on a one-and-a-half lane road as we climbed up the steep side of the Kathmandu Valley. What we didn't know at the time was just how gentle of an introduction Nepal's roads were as preparation for Bhutan.
We were warmly welcomed in to the Resort Eco Home by the owner Semanta, which indeed felt like home if you are used to living in your own private upscale trekking lodge. We were the only guests there in the middle of low-season, so the staff was hyper-attentive during our leisurely dinner of gourmet dal bhat with seven different vegetable dishes. It turns out that the delicious fresh-prepared food spoiled Mike for the rest of the trip, as he would often reminisce about "Semanta's cooking" at meals thereafter. We enjoyed a celebratory toast to our family reunion by the fireplace and went to bed early with a wake-up door knock scheduled for sunrise the next morning, if it was clear.
Indeed it was, so we bundled up and walked up to the ridge line temple for mostly unobstructed views of the Himalayas. Sadly, a large hotel is under construction that already scars the viewscape. After breakfast, we walked a few kilometers up to an official viewpoint where the only distractions from the unimpeded stretch of mountains was the formidable brown haze rising up from Kathmandu Valley below and the Saturday crowds of urban Nepalis escaping it. After tracing our entire trekking route between iconic peaks such as Langtang, Ganesh Himal, and Manaslu, for Mike and Esther, the people-watching was equally fascinating. The day ended with equally clear skies that revealed a starry sky of a caliber possible in precious few places in this electrified world.
By late morning the next day, we had checked in to the lovely Rokpa hotel in Boudha, which generates income for the important social work of the Rokpa Foundation. Our minivan taxi did some crazy maneuvering through the narrow alleyways, including shooing fruit carts out of their established territory, to deliver us to this peaceful haven hidden away among craziness. We braved the streets long enough to get to Boudha's main attraction, the Bodnath stupa.
Bodnath is the largest stupa in Asia and a captivating structure to behold. We joined the ever-morphing revolution of worshippers circling the stupa clockwise and spinning rows of prayer wheels below the watchful eyes of Buddha on all four sides of the spire. We popped in to a thangka painting school and observed some students in action, at least as much action as one can see in a few minutes of work on a meticulously detailed creation that takes at least one month to complete. In one of several Buddhist monasteries surrounding the stupa, we were given a tour by a resident monk who beautifully explained the Wheel of Life, a commonly displayed in monasteries as well as the commercial thangka shops.
Boudha is the epicenter of Tibetan culture in Nepal, with many Tibetan refugees and immigrants settling there since the Chinese occupation of Tibet. In keeping with its character, we ate dinner at a simple and traditional Tibetan restaurant called Double Dorje. Esther and Mike got their first taste of momos and my personal favorite, thenthuk, similar to a chicken noodle soup with lots of fresh veggies. Mike was feeling culinarily adventurous and followed my lead of ordering tongba, hot millet beer, but the Viking-sized "stein" it was served in was a bit much, so I had to finish the job.
Besides simply catching up with Esther and Mike, it was fun to see Nepal through their fresh eyes as they shared first impressions and reacted with surprise to things that had ceased to stand out to us after three months in the country. It was a wake up call as to just how complacent we had gotten about careful observation and soaking up the details of daily life here. With just three full days to get a taste of Nepal, the next day we returned to the airport to fly to a place where we would all have fresh eyes: Druk Yul, Land of the Thunder Dragon.