We didn’t know any Hindi when we got to India. We were helpless when ordering food in a restaurant and often just pointed to something. On our first few days, dinner was usually a complete surprise. “Oh! Okra! Did you know they eat okra here?” Didn’t see that one coming. There were times when we wound up with rice, naan, and potatoes. But others when a beautiful, mystery dish showed up. For me, that was Sahi Paneer, a rich, creamy, ever so slightly spicy tomato curry style dish with chunks of cheese (paneer). It was delicious and I knew my dad would love it.
The thing is though, I don’t usually cook Indian food. I don’t really know how the spices work together, but know that one dish often has tons of different spices. And what makes it so saucy? How’d you get so tasty? I silently ask the plate in front of me. I wanted to be able to come home and make Sahi Paneer for my family, but didn’t really know where to start.
There are signs for Indian cooking classes all over Rishikesh. We went to a few restaurants that were advertising cooking classes to test out the kind of food we’d be learning to make, but were disappointed by the results: too rich, too salty, or just plain nasty. But we all know that the best kind of cooking is home cooking. So that is where we took our class, in a home.
Our class was about an hour and a half and ended with a delicious lunch of Sahi Paneer, Aloo Palak (potato in spinach sauce), Aloo Parantha (potato filled flatbread) and Vegetable Biryani (spiced rice with vegetables). All of the chopping was done ahead of time and the measuring done with a single spoon. Our job was to take pictures and write down how many teaspoons of turmeric goes into each dish. Our teacher claimed that his English was “not so good,” yet he knew all of the English words for spices, vegetables, and tools. Maybe it was thanks to the English- Hindi picture charts hanging around the room, or thanks to his daughters who speak English very well and were assisting with explanations.
Our teacher’s cooking style was “a bit of this and a bit of that,” “a big spoonful of salt, a half spoonful of garam masala,” though he did give measurements for our sake. Every dish started by heating oil and cumin seeds and at some point, a bit of chili and garam masala were added. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the very rich Sahi Paneer wasn’t made with cream, but with cashew nut milk. Who knew?
I enjoyed watching someone cook easily and comfortably with flavors and spices that are foreign to me. The benefit of the cooking class, versus trying out a recipe from the internet, is that we had the pleasure of spending an afternoon in someone’s home, cooking with their dad who is a good cook. Subol was laid back, friendly, and an informative teacher, which is exactly how my dad taught me how to cook. Except I had to chop more in those lessons.
5:20 AM – Woken by very, very loud horn
5:30 AM – Chant mantras in sanskrit
6:00 AM – Meditation
8:00 AM – Breakfast (Rice, nuts, tea)
11:00 AM – Traditional kriya/hatha yoga
12:30 PM – Lunch (Dal, curried vegetables, chapati, rice)
4:00 PM – Pranayam (breathing exercises)
6:30 PM – Chant mantras in sanskrit
7:00 PM – Meditation
8:00 PM – Dinner (Dal, curried vegetables, chapati, rice)
9:30 PM – Ashram gates locked
This was our schedule for the time we spent in the Kriya Yoga Ashram in Rishikesh, India. Sex, alcohol, and garlic were strictly prohibited anywhere in the ashram facility, and quiet conversation was only allowed with members of same sex in private rooms, outside of mediation and mealtimes. Silence was to be observed at all other times. If you’re looking for an authentic spiritual experience, this is the place for you. We thought that was what we wanted, but the demanding schedule and rules wore on us pretty quickly. We lasted three days.
I think it was the repetitive food (so much rice!) and prohibition of conversation during meals that did us in. To be fair, we were warned that the food offered was “very simple,” and we could have eaten elsewhere (at additional cost of course). I found the yoga and breathing (pranayam) exercises to be accessible and useful, and the mediation challenging but relaxing. A certain amount of proficiency was expected in meditation, which we didn’t have, so some instruction in that regard would have been nice, but it was at least an opportunity to reflect and relax. I think I learned a few things about myself through the meditation and mantras.
My initial reaction to the mantra chanting was to retreat. I saw these as religious rituals that I had no interest in. So, just like my Catholic school days, I sulked awkwardly in the back. Eventually I realized that my presence was distracting others so I played along. I still think it’s silly to chant sounds to whose meaning I’m completely ignorant, so I stayed in the back, muttering “Brangelina, Yamaha, Shaquille O’Neal, kazaam!”
After day three, we’d had enough of quiet time and really missed coffee, so we high-tailed it to a more easy-going facility. At Shiva Yoga Peeth we’re allowed to come and go as we please and attendance is never required. We can mainline espresso and garlic bread (ew, not at the same time), and there’s twice daily ass-kicking yoga and significantly less ass-kicking but very nice meditation time. Oh, and we can actually talk about our day during dinner! What a revelation!
Your mileage may vary. I can see how the quiet life in a traditional ashram could be extremely beneficial. It wasn’t right for us, but I’m glad we gave it a whirl.
Most of the time traveling is fun. But sometimes being away from home is really hard.
Like when you’re sick and don’t want to learn about a new place, you just want to lay in bed and watch Modern Family and snuggle with your obese cat, not the skinny cats who eat the garbage around here. But the power is out (like it is every day) and the laptop is dead. That’s when it’s hard. So then you just lay in your bed in your cheap hotel room, sweating and staring at the wall that is painted four colors of blue and has a hose sticking out of the corner, dripping water on the carpet.
Or when you have a Skype date and you spent the extra money on a cell phone plan with the guy in the tiny stall with the dusty cell phone parts and lots of flies who said everything would work once you give him the money. And then he made you feel crazy for double checking that it would work and asking for a receipt. Ha, a receipt! And then of course, it doesn’t work. And that’s the third time this Skype call didn’t work. And the person at home is frustrated. That’s when it’s hard.
When you’ve got your fifty pound backpack on and you explode into tears on a street corner in Kathmandu, even though you’re almost thirty years old, but thirty year olds have shit days, too. And some guy is trying to sell you a wooden flute and you wipe your snotty nose and say, “No thank you,” through your tears and he says, “Very nice flute, make a good and happy price, just for you,” and you clench your jaw and try very, very hard not to scream in his face that you never, ever want his stupid fucking flute for any price. And he just stands there, waiting.
It’s hard when friends are getting married and family members are going to the doctors and there is nothing you can do about it, but just sit there. Maybe write an email or “like” it on Facebook. I Facebook like that you had a baby. Sweet.
The world is big and beautiful and we’re grateful to get to see it, but not having a home can be challenging. Often one of those shit days is followed by an excellent one and all of the details work themselves out. The Skype conversation happens eventually, the flute man finds another tourist to prey on, and I go find a pizza and a beer or a stray cat to play with. I suppose getting homesick is just as much a part of traveling as that moment of excitement when you see a turtle while diving. If you don’t have lows, you won’t have highs.
That being said, I can’t wait for some blueberry pie, a Longtrail IPA and a big group of friends and family when we get home next summer.
When you leave somewhere and go to a new place, you can either feel comfortable and complete with your experience or incomplete and wanting for more. Circumstances vary, but for all the places we’ve visited on this trip I can confidently say I’ve been ready to go when the time has come. Everywhere, that is, except Nepal.
We’ve just left Kathmandu after staying in the country for a month, and we feel like we could easily have stayed for twice as long or more without growing bored. Some places are just a great fit, and for us Nepal was that place.
Why go to Nepal?
Simply put: trekking. Sorry New Zealand, but the best trekking (or hiking, tramping, walking, whatever you call it) in the world is in Nepal. The country was essentially built on walking, as a large part of the population lives in rural mountain villages with no road access. Trekking is just business as usual. Some of these local trails have been converted to tourist routes, but there are plenty of routes that are still literally off the beaten path.
Guided vs. Unguided?
With much of the tourism industry built around trekking, Nepal has no shortage of excellent guides at very reasonable prices (around US$20 per day). And taking a guide is a great way to go. A good guide will help you with everything involved with trekking, from booking buses to renting gear and making sure you’re safe and healthy along the route. Our awesome guide, Pradeep from Nepal Para Trek, even taught us the basics of the Nepali language along the trail!
We loved our experience with a guide and it made the Annapurna basecamp trek very easy for us, logistically at least. That said, you probably don’t need a guide. On our second trek, Pradeep was unavailable so we went alone and it was a much different experience. We were able to connect more closely with the local people along the trail because we were forced to interact with them during mealtimes at teahouses. My strong recommendation is to take a guide on your first trek so that you can get the basics down, then go unguided on your second trek for more of an adventure.
Teahouse vs. Camping Trek
Most trekking in Nepal is from village to village, and you stay in simple teahouses run by local families that provide your meals. This, as you might expect, is awesome. The other option is to camp, with porters carrying all your food and equipment. As far as I can see the only reason to go on a camping trek in Nepal is if there’s something you absolutely HAVE to see where teahouses don’t exist (Kanchenjunga Basecamp, for example). But why be so picky? Relax, enjoy yourself, and sleep in a real bed in a teahouse. It’s cheaper and unique. You can camp anywhere in the world but few places have the kind of trekking infrastructure that Nepal does.
What’s staying in a teahouse like?
Rooms are simple, with thin foam mattresses and heavy blankets. We brought rented sleeping bags ($1.50 per day) with us at the recommendation of our guide and were thankful. Nights at high elevation get VERY cold, even when it’s scorching hot in Kathmandu. Warm showers are sometimes available, usually at a small cost ($1.50-$3). I usually took a cold shower or skipped it because my long hair takes about a week to dry in the damp mountain air.
Accommodation is cheap (from free to $3), and the food is good. We spent about $15 per day on food, which included a lot of rice but very little beer, which gets expensive ($4-6.50, 600ml) because it has to be carried up the mountain.
While trekking is where Nepal is best, there are certainly other things to do. If you’ve got the funds go rafting or kayaking on what some say are some of the worlds top ten whitewater opportunities, or live in the lap of luxury for a fraction of what you’d pay elsewhere.
Shopping in the charmingly chaotic Kathmandu neighborhoods of Thamel and Old Town is fun for a little while, but most of the shops begin to look the same after a day or so, because, well, they are all the same. A recurring joke with our trekking buddies when discussing the location of anything in Thamel was, “Was it between the big knife store or the hemp t-shirt shop?” There are many bargains to be had though, with t-shirts from $4 and knock-off North Face down jackets around $25.
Need to Know
Tourist buses go between Kathmandu and Pokhara daily for $6, but for more obscure trips you might have to take a terrifying and uncomfortable local bus. Look for the possibility of a private jeep if available. They’re more comfortable and similarly priced to the buses.
Oh yeah, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Nepali people, who are lovely and welcoming and excited to share their country with you. It’s a melting pot of Indian, Tibetan, and Chinese cultures that’s really unique and quite fascinating. Most people speak good English and are eager to chat, though some in Thamel may just be trying to sell you fake jewelry or hashish. As usual, be on guard, but don’t be scared to talk because someone might be after your rupees, you can always say no and walk away.
I could go on for days about Nepal, but this should get you started on any journey there. If you have any specific questions we’re happy to help! Just ask in the comments or email us.
Royal Guest House
AM/PM Organic Cafe
Old Lan Hua Chinese Restaurant
Busy Bee’s Bar and Restaurant
The Langtang Trek in northern Nepal offers an incredible opportunity to live among Tibetan refugees and spot red panda and snow leopard (though reports of sightings were infrequent and dubious) in the foothills of the Himalaya. Unfortunately, getting to the start of the trek can be a bit of an…adventure:
Despite the thirteen (!) hour bus ride that involved getting stuck in a landslide inches from certain doom, countless delays at military checkpoints and every kind of weather, we made it to Syabru Besi and the start of the trek. Phew.
Day 1: Syabru Besi (1300m) to Lama Hotel (2300m)
Day 2: Lama Hotel (2300m) to Langtang (3300m)
Day 3: Langtang (3300m) to Kyanjin Gompa (3800m)
Day 4: Rest day in Kyanjin Gompa
Day 5: Descend to Lama Hotel
Day 6: Descend to Syabru Besi
The first two days of this trek came as advertised, with two kilometers vertical gain they were challenging but possible for anyone with a moderate level of fitness. Things were made worse for us by persistent rain and fog, and an equally persistent illness that we both contracted on the aforementioned bus ride from hell. So we were rewarded with exactly zero mountain views for our entire ascent up the valley, but isn’t hiking long distances about delaying gratification anyway?
We’d scheduled a rest day in Kyanjin Gompa, which wasn’t entirely necessary for resting purposes but provided an opportunity to explore this mountain village and its surrounding peaks. Tired of walking and both still feeling a bit under the weather (pun very much intended), we chose to take a pony ride! After inquiring with our host (who advertised “HORSE RIDING AVAILABLE”) he responded,”You want horse ride?” with some surprise, then “Ok, I go catch horses” [emphasis added].
After the initial embarrassment of trotting around awkwardly on a horse that felt too small to carry my weight I realized “Hey self, you’re riding a horse in the Himalayas. Enjoy it!” And then I did. When I learned my horse (I dubbed him Joey Chestnutt and Christina’s Poopeater) was nearly as old as I am I felt better about trusting him not to fall off narrow mountain pathways with me teetering on his back. I hope he enjoyed his well-earned reward of cabbage afterward. Ya done good, Joey.
If we were feeling better we would have climbed one of the smaller peaks around the village, like Kyanjin Ri (4200m) or Tsergo Ri (4800m), but instead we played cards, drank tea, and visited the local yak cheese factory and Buddhist monastery. For a town that’s a three day walk from any kind of road, there’s kind of an amazing amount of things to do. I almost expected a movie theater or mini-golf course to pop up around the next corner.
During one of our many tea stops we met a Kiwi dude named Warren who was planning on staying up in Kyanjin Gompa and living amongst the yaks for a week. He was taking his time to do all the day hikes in the area (some more than once!) and relax in his mountain retreat. This was something we wished we’d thought of before shoehorning this trek into the last week on our Nepali visa. Food was only slightly more expensive than Kathmandu and accommodation was actually cheaper. We would have enjoyed the opportunity to unplug, unwind, and soak in the local culture for a few more precious days.
The walk down was painful on the knees and feet, but not physically challenging. Some real warriors tried to descend from Kyanjin Gompa to Syabru Besi in one day, but that felt excessive and punishing on these old bones. We split it up into two days and were grateful.
Needless to say, we took alternate transportation back to Kathmandu. The knock-off Indian Landcruiser driven by an eighteen-year-old and packed with eleven people felt positively secure, and a bargain at $6, compared to the rickety old bus on one-lane mountain roads.
If you’ve only got time and effort to spare for a short, easier trek in Nepal, Langtang is a good choice. Immerse yourself in the Tibetan culture and mountain wildlife, and leave a little extra time for relaxing in the Himalaya. If we could do it again, we would’ve stayed a few more days in Kyanjin Gompa, and maybe linked this trek with the Gosainkunda Trek, which over an additional three or four days walking takes you back to within an hour drive of Kathmandu.
Trekking to a guest house is such a treat! In New Zealand, we were carrying our food and stove and sleeping in huts. In the US, we would carry our food, stove, tent, and end the day by eating noodles on a log before retiring to our tent. In the Nepal though, we show up empty handed to a guest house and order a plate of fries. Some trekkers complain that guest houses crowd the trail and detract from the whole get into the middle of nowhere aspect of trekking. But we love them. We love them for the hot food and warm beds and conversation with local people.
“When did you kill this chicken?” I asked the cook at the guest house in Chiule, along the ABC trek. I was sitting in the kitchen, watching them cook dinner.
“Today,” he tossed the chicken into a massive wok and glanced out into the yard at the remaining chickens, pecking in the grass.
“How did you kill it? Cut the head off?” I was half making conversation and half curious as I didn’t see any sort of dangle the chicken upside down set up.
“No knife, too dangerous. Throw a rock at his head.” The cook answered while shoving the chicken bits around with a spatula.
I gasped and laughed almost choked on my tea. You see, without the guest house, you’d never know that another culture kills their chickens with a rock to the head.
The folks on the mountains eat and serve what they grow (with the exception of Snickers, noodles and canned tuna). People grow rice, millet, potatoes, cabbages, and carrots above 3,000 m. They make Yak cheese and simple stovetop breads like chapati and fried Tibetan bread. Since both the Langtang trek and the Annapurna Base Camp Trek are in similar climates, the menus at the guest houses serve similar dishes, with the exception of meat. The Langtang region is Buddhist and doesn’t eat or serve meat. The menus feature fried noodles, veg fried noodles, egg veg fried noodles, potatoes, veg potatoes, egg veg fried potatoes, rice, veg fried rice, egg veg fried rice. You get the point.
“Dal Baht Power, 24 Hour” is what the locals claim. Dal Baht is a Nepali set meal of dal (lentil) soup, white rice, curry vegetables, and pickle that varies slightly from place to place. On the ABC trek the dal was a thin yellow soup and in the Langtang region it was brown and thick. The pickle isn’t a pickled cucumber, but any kind of vegetable, usually a tomato in a spicy vinegary sauce. The dal delivers your protien, rice fills you up, curry gives you nutrients and spicy pickle keeps the whole thing from getting boring. It’s no wonder the porters eat it for every meal. We ate from the same menu for 18 of our 30 days in Nepal and often stuck with Dal Baht. After awhile, we did get tired of the same options. Do I want potatoes again? Not really. But that’s not the point. The food is trekkers food. It’s hot, nutritious and filling. And just when you start to get tired of the menu, someone whispers rumors of chocolate cake in Kyanjin Gompa or real pizza in Chhomrong and you pick up the pace.