I don't usually like saying a country is "friendly" or "unfriendly." After all, there are good and bad people everywhere, and few regions fall into neat boxes like that. However, I'm going to break my rule when it comes to Nepal. Overall, this country was FRIENDLY as hell. While Nepal is quite a poor nation, I found the people to be generous, welcoming, and laid back. Compared to neighboring India, there was a relative lack of tourist scams and hassle. Moving from place to place was easy and convenient.
Nepal was the perfect place to relax my brain, and work on personal projects. While trekking, I continued practicing photography, and got some much needed exercise. There's something about climbing thousands of meters in elevation that stimulates the body and the mind, and challenges one to think outside the box. While in the capital, Kathmandu, I completed writing my first feature screenplay. I've never mentioned this on the blog, but it is my life's ambition to become a film director, and this was a huge first step. Writing a screenplay is to date one of the most fun and challenging projects I've undertaken. This gorgeous country afforded me a peace of mind that helped me express exactly what I needed to put into words.
While Nepal is by far one of the cheapest countries I've ever traveled in (if not the cheapest), the price comes with a caveat. Most tourists don't come to the country just to bum around and do nothing. Meaning, if you just want to relax and eat momos and stay in your hostel, you'll spend barely anything. However, you will likely be going to Nepal to do activities, be they trekking, national parks, or visiting historical sites. Activities come at an extra cost, which I will get into in the category breakdown.
I spent 25 days in Nepal, and managed to travel from the western border (Mahendranagar), until as far east as Kathmandu. Here is a breakdown of what I spent over those three and a half weeks:
Food - $181.82
While food was once again my biggest cost overall, it was relatively cheap. Meals could be had for $1-2 almost anywhere. The big exception is while trekking, where meal prices are inflated from 3-6x. A standard serving of Dal Bhat (Nepal's national dish) is usually 150 Nepalese rupees (approx $1.30). While doing the Poon Hill trek, it jumped to 400-600 rupees. Nonetheless, coming from a western country, food in Nepal is quite cheap and filling. Just stay away from the tourist restaurants in Pokhara.
Miscellaneous - $86.57
Includes everything from mobile data, to ATM fees, to haircuts. One thing to note, my debit card was discontinued by my bank (due to an unfortunate ATM scam in Pokhara), and I had to pay for a costly Western Union money transfer.
Activities - $77.07
Trekking permits and national park entry fees were accounted into this, as well as a single movie ticket I purchased in Kathmandu. Depending on what percentage of your trip will be spent trekking/going to national parks, this category can be much more expensive.
Transport - $72.04
Local buses are on par with India in terms of cost. The only thing that sucks about Nepal is that Uber (and Ola, India's ridesharing app) is not in operation. When taking a taxi or rickshaw, you always have to haggle, and will likely pay higher prices than locals.
Accommodation - $63.71
This one takes the cake, folks. Nepal is by far the cheapest country for accommodation I've ever traveled to. I never paid more than $5 for a hotel or hostel room during my entire trip. Rooms on the Poon Hill trek were free (in exchange for us eating all our meals at the guesthouse).
Average daily cost of $19.25 per day. You can have a great time in Nepal for $20 per day, a cheaper backpack bumming experience for $15 per day (or lower), or trekker's paradise on $30 per day. It's your choice.
The Himalayas. Nothing could have prepared me for the grandness of its scope. As I flew into Leh, mountains towered above ground, shockingly close to the airplane windows. Surely this couldn't be real? I was about to find out how real it was.
I checked into my hostel. A period of mild altitude sickness followed, as my body acclimatized to 3500 meters of elevation. For those unaware, the symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS) range from headaches, nausea, and insomnia, to difficulty breathing. Generally, the higher in altitude you are, the greater the risk of experiencing this illness. Most cases are treatable with hydration, rest, or a decrease in altitude. However, AMS can progress to more serious forms, which are life-threatening.
Thankfully, my symptoms in Leh were very mild. A day or two of relaxation and bed rest was all I needed to adapt to the high altitude. Some fellow hostellers were planning on doing the Markha Valley Trek, a five day expedition in the Ladakh region of India. I decided to join them; little did I know what was to come.
I was expecting a beautiful yet challenging hike through some gorgeous terrain. What ensued was bar none, the most physically taxing experience of my life, and one of the most emotionally draining, too.
We took a shared taxi to Chilling, the village where most trekkers begin the hike. So it began.
The first three days were challenging but fairly straightforward. Each morning, we would begin a 5-8 hour hike. The terrain encompassed staggering mountains, rivers, and miles upon miles of rocky ground. Starting at an altitude of roughly 3500 meters, we climbed no more than 400 each day. The trail passed through small villages, where we spent the nights.
The village home-stays all had the same general layout. For 1200 rupees (roughly $17) you were given a place to sleep, a hot home-cooked dinner, breakfast in the morning, and a packed lunch to bring with you for the afternoon. The meals were simple. Dinner usually consisted of dal (lentils) with rice and veggies, and the occasional steamed momos (Tibetan dumplings). Breakfast was bread with honey, jam, and peanut butter. The packed lunch was rather meager: a small potato, boiled egg, fried bread, and an (artificial tasting) juice box. However, the odd tea stall served omelets and snacks, allowing us to replenish certain missed nutrients.
On day four of the trek, things started getting intense.
Most trekking guidelines suggest increasing your sleeping altitude by no more than 300-500 meters per day. This allows one to slowly acclimatize, without putting undue strain upon the body.
Do you know how far we ascended on our fourth day? Nearly 1000 meters. That's right, our altitude increased by nearly a kilometer in several hours.
The altitude increase was our first mistake (though pretty much every other trekker we ran into was attempting the same feat). Our second mistake was: getting lost for a couple of hours. Although we were not far from our base camp destination, we accidentally wandered in the wrong direction. Darkness was just hours away, and I was starting to get a mild headache. I took the emergency Diamox on hand (note: please don't use this blog article as a how-to guide to taking Diamox: I most certainly used it incorrectly), and figured it wouldn't be long until we reached our camp. As soon as we ran into another group of trekkers, however, the headache got worse. We had found our way, but now I had full blown altitude sickness.
Although logic dictates lowering one's altitude in case of AMS, it was becoming too late to turn back. The closest village was two or three hours away, while our destination was less than one. Additionally, there was unlikely to be medical assistance down below, while the base camp was populated by more than 30 trekkers and locals.
The pain was starting to be unbearable. My head felt like it was going to explode. Breathing had become quite difficult, and a wave of nausea washed over me. My heart was pounding full force, and my energy levels were at zero. I sat on the ground, head in my hands, unable to push on. Fellow trekkers nervously stood by me, offering food, water, and moral support. I thought I was going to die.
"I need to turn back," I said. People anxiously reminded me how risky of a decision that would be. Why oh why had I gone on this trek? I had bitten off more than I could chew, and now I had to die because of it?
Suddenly, seemingly miraculously, the Diamox must have kicked in. It was like a switch had been flipped in my respiratory system. I felt a tingling sensation in my fingertips and feet, and I gasped. Air came rushing into my lungs. A headache still persisted, but my temples no longer felt like they were going to burst. "Let's do this," I said. No sooner did the words come out of my mouth, than a local guide offered to carry my backpack for me. We were on our way.
The experience of reaching base camp was overwhelming. A cabin full of dozens of trekkers greeted us with open arms, hot tea, and headache remedies. Everyone shared stories of their past week on the trail, including a few who had also dealt with mountain sickness. Seems I was not alone. After a delicious dinner, we stayed in tents, preparing for the upcoming (and most physically challenging) day. The altitude was 4800 meters, and it snowed that night. I slept very little.
I couldn't believe it, but when I awoke, my headache was gone! Was I really going to attempt a 5150-meter mountain pass, shortly after getting ill? The answer was, yes.
The climb to Kongmaru La Pass was rough. It was the steepest incline yet of the trek; the cold and snow slowed everything to a crawl. All I could do was put one foot in front of the other. The closer we got to our destination, the farther away it seemed. Inches felt like miles. Eventually, I stopped looking up, for fear of the distance we had remaining. Right foot, left foot. My legs were screaming. My feet were screaming. There was no choice but to go on, lest we were done for.
The feeling when I reached that pass was multifaceted. A mixture of accomplishment, relief, exhaustion, and dread ht me like a ton of bricks. The day wasn't even half over. We still had to descend more than a thousand meters, a feat which would take more than four hours.
The rest of the trek went without a hitch. I returned to Leh, tired and sore, and crashed at my hostel.
It's still too early to tell, but I believe the trek changed me as a person. It made me realize both what I was and wasn't physically capable of. The moment I was rendered helpless by the altitude, my self-reliance hit zero. All I could do was trust the goodness of others, and their senses of judgment. I discovered how important it is to have capable and reliable allies near you, especially when attempting something extreme.
The experience also made me rethink physical fitness. Back in the USA, one of my jobs was being a personal trainer. Though I work hard to keep in shape and make exercise a regular part of my life, treks like the Markha Valley require a different kind of strength. Besides the fact that one needs to walk nearly eight hours per day (often steeply uphill) while carrying a heavy backpack, trekking take an inner kind of strength. At certain points, it really does become mind over matter. I felt like my ultimate completion of the hike came down more to a sense of mental fortitude than it did anything else.
I plan on spending the next several weeks in the Himalayas, possibly doing some more trekking. Markha took a lot out of me, but what it took, it replaced with something stronger. When all is said and done, traveling has the potential to challenge one in every way imaginable. 16,000 feet certainly did for me.
My name is Yonah Paley. I quit my job in the United States to travel. I also write movies and do photography. As I backpack across the world, I share stories, philosophy, and travel tips.