Making the voyage from Bhaktapur to Kodari, on the northern border of Nepal, is not the easiest of trips – however, it is easily one of the most rewarding. The Chinese-built Araniko Highway runs all the way from KTM to Kodari, 115km northeast. While it’s not a journey for the faint of heart (or really for anyone during monsoon), the Highway offers ridiculously beautiful views of breathtaking vistas and glimpses of some of the most stunning scenery in all of Nepal, funning parallel to the beautiful Bhote-Kosi River nearly the entire way.
After a 30 minute walk to the stop and much confusion between 10 police officers all trying to help us, my roommate, G, and I ended up on a bus to Barahabise, just halfway to Kodari. This was due mostly to the apparent confusion of the Nepali friends who told us “it was within two hours of here”. Lies. Kodari was, in actuality, a solid 6 hours away. However, upon arriving in Baharabise, there were dozens of affordable guest houses on the main road, as well as great food and plenty of rooftop views of the river, as Barahabise spans across both sides, with a bridge connecting them.
As two young women, we made the choice to stay in a guest house which, though small and unremarkable, was super affordable (150 NPR/person/night – about $2 each) and run by a family, headed by a woman we met while browsing in her shop next door. it didn’t even look like a guest house – it was just a hallway between two buildings with a small decrepit sign above it that said “Guest House” in Nepali and English. Hahah. By the next morning though, after having sunrise tea and biscuits on the rooftop, and meeting the woman’s two adorable children, we knew we’d stopped at the perfect place. We rushed off after breakfast to make the early bus to Kodari, supposedly leaving at 9am.
After sitting alone on the sketchiest bus I’ve ever been on (broken seats with exposed metal, an uneven floor and huge dirty tires everywhere )until 9:30, we were finally joined by a few others headed North, dragging enormous sacks of rice and grain onto the bus, supplies to sell or trade in the cities further north. After a terrifying bus ride even further north, wherein I had to stand for lack of seats and became positive that we would die any second, tumbling down into the river abyss on either side of our overloaded bus
Unable upon arrival to tell whether we had reached Tatopani the city, or Tatopani, the district, we kept riding the bus as far as it would take us towards the Chinese border, accidentally arriving in Kodari, about a 10 minute walk from the border (“The Friendship Bridge”). The border patrol was mostly accommodating, though super creepy and “Big Brother”ish when a man, dressed in normal street clothing, whom we thought was simply another tourist, turned out to be a Chinese official came up to us and made my friend delete her picture of the river…because it included parts of China!
In general, Kodari was lovely – everyone was friendly and helpful and we bargained the Namgel guest house (the closest one to the border, with a rooftop that overlooked the valley, the bridge and part of China) down from 350 to 200 rupees each AND managed to convince them to let us have the nicer room on the bottom floor AND get double blankets.
High on independence and empowered by how much we had already done all by ourselves, G and I went up on the rooftop of our guest house and noticed a path going up the mountain beside us, women in sarees and salwar khameez scaling it quickly and easily, and decided we too, should climb up the mountain and find out what the trail led to. To our chagrin, within hiking less than a quarter of it, it was stone steps going STRAIGHT UP THE MOUNTAIN. Literally there wasn’t a single flat patch of path – just step after step, going straight up the mountain. After stopping half a dozen times and being surpassed by 75 year old Nepali women in sarees with water jugs on their heads, we finally made it to the top. There wasn’t exactly much to see but it was one of the most surreal moments of my year – sitting at the top of a mountain with another American, a Nepali monk walking behind us (there was a monastery located up the next mountain), Tibetan prayer flags waving beside us while we overlooked China.
We began heading toward Tatopani at 8am the next morning, grabbing some chiya (Nepali milk tea) and breakfast along the way. As we knew it would be downhill, we didn’t bother waiting for a bus, and just started our trip on foot – an excellent idea as the views were stunning and there was even a lookout point (a pedestrian foot bridge) to get a better view of the cliff-face waterfalls on China’s side. Upon arriving in Tatopani, we looked around helplessly for the hot springs – before realizing we were right next to them. Descending the 3 dozen steep steps down (which again, the elderly Nepali women had no problem conquering), we arrived in something resembling a public bathhouse – divided into men’s and women’s sections, the complex included public bathing and changing areas for each gender, as well as rentable rooms with bathtubs and showers in them.
My friend and I ended up just renting one giant bathtub (to much confusion, since “top,” was used everywhere – implying the misspelling of “tub”) which was more like a huge but shallow hot tub. It worked wonderfully – the water came straight out of the faucet hot and steaming, providing us with the luxury of a hot bath for the first time in 4 months, warming us for an hour, from the outside in, probably the first time that month that I felt myself unthawing from the freezing Nepali weather.
Nepal actually isn’t that cold – where I come from in Virginia, we get snow and much colder temperatures in the winter. But in Virginia, we have the abundant luxury of central heating or woodstoves at the very least. Certainly there aren’t many in the U.S. that would attempt a winter without any kind of heat source to carry them through. Even those who do know that there are public places they can go to warm themselves up – even places as simple as public libraries or coffee shops provide an emergency heat source. In Nepal, everyone just sticks it out. The only time besides Tatopani when I felt truly warm was on one memorable bus trip to Changunarayan, wherein I stood for the entire 45-minute bus ride, so tightly packed into the bus that had we gotten into an accident, I think we would have been so tightly packed, no one would have even been jarred.
The rest of our trip was largely uneventful, except for the bus ride home. We were delighted and somewhat confused by the love in the air – couples were holding hands, cuddling up to each other, being altogether very…un-Nepali. Maybe the hot springs have an unintended side effect. We also loved getting to laugh at the horrified looks on the other white peoples’ faces in our bus back down the mountain. They had just come from Tibet and were shocked to see the conditions of the buses/roads here. Somehow, it felt validating to know that other people were terrified out of their minds too.
My final expedition in Nepal was to Nagarkot – an area just 40 minutes from Bhaktapur, renowned for its location on top of a mountain where sunrise is considered to be simply stunning. I went with my friend A, whom I actually know from my university back in the States, who was on break and came home to Nepal for the first time in a long while. We went with her longtime boyfriend, P, as well, who is super sweet and a wonderful photographer. I headed to their place first though, into Kathmandu to Koteshwor, where A’s family lives – her parents and her sister L, who attends boarding school outside of KTM, as well as some extended family who live downstairs. The boarding school is the same that A and P attended and met at and has a very interesting philosophy behind it which involves making the students who attend (many on scholarship and from underrepresented castes, ethnic groups, etc.) as equal as possible. Everyone wears a uniform, aren’t allowed care packages (which could distinguish economic strata amongst students) and most intriguing, are given numbers for their last names, which divide them into family groups and have the double bonus of making it so that people’s castes cannot be determined from their name alone.
Nepal was a beautiful experience, all around, and I look forward to going again – though perhaps next time, I will go during the summer.